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Softball: Fairfax, Glenelg in building mode

By Greg Schimmel and ,

When Matt Hoffert took over the Fairfax softball program before this season, the first-year coach wanted to “put a fresh coat of paint” on things — literally and figuratively.

The Rebels finished 0-18 last season, and Hoffert knew he needed to change the culture of the program to help kickstart a turnaround.

“A lot of it is going into practice with a mentality that we’re a winning program,” Hoffert said. “We’re showing that we care.”

The attitude adjustment began in the offseason, when Hoffert recruited a group of softball parents to help him upgrade the field at Fairfax. He focused even on minor details like re-painting the flag pole to help add some legitimacy to the home venue.

Seniors Tiffany Balbuena and Farren Tashjian designed new uniforms for the team and led fundraisers so the program could pay for them.

By the time the season started last month, Fairfax had a new look and a newfound sense of pride that has carried them through the first month of the season.

Even after an 11-7 loss to Marshall on Tuesday night, Fairfax (4-3) is competitive in the deeply talented Virginia AAA Liberty District.

“It definitely gives us more pride that we play for our school,” Tashjian said. “A lot of it is our coach, but we also have really high-caliber players this year and that’s contributing to the attitude change.”

Tashjian, a catcher, is a leader behind the plate, and center fielder Valbuena leads the team in RBI, but an infusion of talented underclassmen has helped make the Rebels competitive.

Sophomore shortstop Rebecca Hall has a pure swing, Hoffert said, and freshman second baseman Kiana Sherlund provides speed at the top of the lineup.

Sophomore pitcher Caitlin Buchanan – a transfer from Gar-Field – gives the Rebels a consistent starter in the circle.

The goal is to finish in the top half of the Liberty District standings and win a playoff game to qualify for the Northern Region tournament for the first time since 2009.

“A lot of times when a team has met with limited success they have an attitude where they’re happy with keeping the games close,” Hoffert said. “Now, you can see the change. They come into games expecting to win.”

Glenelg’s youth movement

The early progress that carried the Glenelg softball team to four straight wins to open its season and a No. 7 ranking has given way in the past week to the tribulations young teams often endure. The Gladiators dropped three consecutive contests, during which their offense sputtered, before a win on Tuesday.

Glenelg Coach Dean Sheridan noted that during his team’s 3-1 loss Saturday to Severna Park, two freshmen, four sophomores, two juniors and one senior played every inning. That being the case, he said, “we’re ahead of where I would have thought we’d have been on March 1.”

The Gladiators (5-3) opened their season with a 2-1 win March 22 over Howard, a Class 3A state finalist in 2011, but, strangely, the manner in which Glenelg claimed victory that day proved ominous. Junior Ciara Davis hit a two-out, walk-off home run to seal the upset.

While he appreciates the value of deep hits, Sheridan said he feels his team’s recent offensive struggles can be traced to its efforts to hit the ball in the air. After averaging 11 runs per contest in their first four games, the Gladiators averaged 2.3 runs during their losing streak.

“We’ve had at least four different girls hit home runs,” Sheridan said. “It’s a natural phenomenon [in softball and baseball] that if you start hitting the ball over the fence, your eyes get big and then you’ve got to get your stroke back. We have to explain that ground balls are harder to catch than fly balls.”

Glenelg sophomore pitcher Colleen Regan has been solid thus far, and she is backed up by a talented middle infield that consists of junior shortstop Leah Allen and senior second baseman Nykita Vernot. If the Gladiators can rediscover their collective swing, Sheridan likes their chances.

“We’re really young, but if you’re a freshman or a sophomore, and you’re good enough to play for a program like traditionally Glenelg is, you shouldn’t be an excuse,” Sheridan said. “You’re there because you’re good, not because you’re little and young.”

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