WAREHAM - Conventional wisdom dictates that in high school sports, the re-building process is never easy, but becomes harder with coaching instability.
Last year Wareham softball struggled with a new coach at the helm, posting a 2-18 record. The 2019 season proved differently, however, with their third new head coach in as many years, Rebekah Pratt, as the Vikings more than doubled their wins from last season and at 5-16 (5-5 SCC) not only made the Massachusetts Softball State Championship Division 3, but in their first playoff game took number-one seed Monomoy to eight close innings before succumbing 3-2.
Perhaps their unlikely success is fitting, given that the initial introduction between a new coach and her senior-less young team came in a likewise unconventional way: a survey.
"I sent out a pre-season survey," coach Pratt said. "For number one their skill level, but why they were playing softball, and what they wanted to see happen this year. I was very up-front with, 'I'm a new coach, you're going to think I'm crazy half the time but that's OK (laughs).' Softball is my passion. I love the sport. I want them fired up. Just getting them to communicate was a little bit of a struggle, but sending out that survey, asking them what they were looking for - I even went so far as to ask them what their athlete-type was. If you're into college or professional ball, they're doing that at the higher levels and it's really trying to focus on the mental game."
A Florida native turned recent Massachusetts resident, Pratt's involvement with softball goes back "over 30 years" in a variety of areas, but this was her first experience coaching at the high school varsity level. Having a daughter coming up through the ranks of Wareham's youth softball programs led her to volunteering for the last several seasons, and ultimately increased her motivation to apply for the head high school position when it became available.
"Waiting for the right moment, I applied for the position," Pratt said. "I went in saying, 'Not only am I proud to have a kid that's a member of this program, I'm proud to be a member of this town, and I promise I'll make you just as proud if you give me the chance to take this program to where it can go, because I see what potential these girls have.' I knew what was there, and it was figuring out how to ignite that spark, like 'Hey guys, you have everything you need. Let's put it all together and have a good time playing ball.'"
Convincing her new young team coming off of a rough season of the joys of the game was not always an easy task, but by year's end Pratt's philosophy paid off, and team unity will remain a focus again next year.
"It was exciting to take on this kind of challenge," Pratt said. "I'm going to be honest, it had its battles of changing a culture and trying to change a program. But at the end of the season, when you see the best your girls put into it, and just the amazing young ladies that they are, it made all of the sleepless nights and everything else worth it. Every day we wanted to be better than we were the day before. We not only doubled our wins, but it was less about the wins on the board than the wins as a team. They learned to play together, communicate together, and remember that softball is a game and it's what you take off the diamond that matters. I knew coming into this season that we had a tough road, but that we were a young, and I would say a very gritty team. These girls play hard and play well together, and I know we're going to be even better next year. All my varsity team is coming back."
Two important returning players will be both Vikings’ pitchers, junior Jocelyne Hendrix and freshman Jenna Klemp.
"They pretty much split the time on the mound," Pratt said of this season. "One with 57 innings and one with 59 innings. Jenna ended the season with 36 strikeouts, I believe Jocelyne had 48. We split the time, but a lot of times it wasn't a perfect one-two rotation because we didn't want the same team to see the same pitcher. So when we played Carver the first time they saw Jenna and when we played them the next time they saw Jocelyne - we tried to mix things up like that a little bit. And I wanted to help them. I didn't want to pitch one over the other. I wanted them both to get some good experience because I have a really young team."
Emphasizing Wareham's youth is that freshman Klemp has been a starting pitcher since her eighth grade season. Coach Pratt was asked how she was able to be so effective at the varsity level at such a young age:
"Just like with any pitcher," Pratt said. "She takes it seriously, she plays travel ball. She’s got great parents who are there to support her and motivate her. She's going to go pretty far. She is a rising star for us."
Despite Hendrix being a junior, she had less varsity-level pitching experience than Klemp before the season.
"Jocelyne pitched a little bit last year for JV, but she's only been pitching for two years, and for her to be able to step on the mound against some of these pitchers - I mean let's be honest, we have senior competitors that are going on to Division II and Division III colleges to pitch. And I've got a freshman and a junior who's only been pitching for two years that can hang with them? I'm beyond proud."
After the season, coach Pratt's pride extended to handing out Wareham's team awards, all four of which went to juniors.
"Grace Cerrato was our offensive player of the year,” Pratt said. "She was our shortstop and she actually played several positions for us this year," Pratt said. "She did center field, she did third, she did a little bit of second, but she really rounded out my infield for me. She was batting close to about .400. She had a slugging percentage of over .500. She had 22 singles and a handful of doubles and triples. She just had a really great year."
"Molly Johnson was our defensive player of the year," Pratt said. "She had a fielding percentage of .938. I don't know if you can beat that. She played third last year and this year we had a hole at first and she just became my rock. As the infielders will tell you, you need a good first baseman and she owned it."
Wareham also gave team awards that were less tangible, but no less important.
"Two other awards I want to mention," Pratt said. "We gave out a Hero Award and that went to junior Jasmine Black. She was kind of like the glue. She got best sportsmen, whatever was needed she did it. A lot of times coaches fail to mention that player who may not be on the All-Star team, but she was selfless. Whatever the team needed is what she did. And she's president of her class and just a phenomenal young lady."
Jocelyne Hendrix was not only Wareham's lone SCC All-Star selection, she also received a unique team award this season.
"She got the Heart Award," Pratt said. "She was always the first one at the field. She was always the last one to leave the field. Whatever needed to be done, whether it was making posters to get them fired up for a game, she did it. She always wanted to take more infield because we needed a third baseman. She started a game at catcher at Carver (laughs) because we needed a catcher that game - Amanda had strep. I think she played every position on the field except one."
Pratt had two other players she wanted to mention in both verbal and text form, sophomore and sister of Molly, Amanda Johnson, and eighth grader Marina Cadena.
"Amanda caught for us all year," Pratt said. "She plays travel ball, and she's really a versatile young athlete. She's just solid. It didn't matter which pitcher was pitching, she did a phenomenal job."
Pratt added: "Jenna Klemp is definitely a rising star. Our other rising star was Marina Cadena, eighth grader, who started varsity in center field, making more dives than I can count."
Wareham's awards and recognition were not just athletically related but scholastically as well, a point of much pride for Pratt.
"I'm beyond proud, we had our awards last night (June 11), and eight of my players made All-American Athletic Scholar Award through the (National Fastpitch Coaches Association)," Pratt said. "So we're talking about players who hold GPAs between 3.5 and 4.6. So when you can do that on the field and off the field - I couldn't be more proud of a group of girls."
According to Pratt, an abundance of helpful parental involvement has also been crucial to the team's turnaround.
"I think it takes a village," Pratt said. "I had a great group of parents. I had a group of parents who traveled to every away game. The more parents you have involved the better it can be. I had some phenomenal volunteers this year. We had a total of four coaches. We had myself as the head varsity coach, I had a JV coach, and then I had two volunteers, and there were a total of three parents. We have the administration, who did a phenomenal job making sure we had everything we needed, and just great parents and great kids."
Fortunately for the Vikings, next season will not see them field their fourth coach in four years if Pratt has anything to say about it. After clearly stating she planned to return next season, Pratt was asked what her second-year plans were for her varsity team that is returning - not just every starter, but every single player:
"Keep building, right?" Pratt said. "To always be better today than you were yesterday. Hopefully they won't think I'm quite as crazy, but still a little crazy (laughs)."
If the upward trajectory of Vikings softball is any indication, Pratt may indeed be crazy like a fox.