Eight frosh playing important roles for Zama American softball team
CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Mongo Martinez’s jaw fell open as he watched Elisabeth Morgan’s leadoff single to right field. It wasn’t so much the hit as the way it sounded, with an authoritative ping off the diminutive Morgan’s bat.
"Whoa, what kind of a hit was that?" Martinez, Yokota’s coach, called to Zama American’s eighth-year coach Veronica Jones.
"That’s one of my freshmen. She’s just a baby," Jones replied.
"Was that a fluke?"
"Just you watch," Jones said, a knowing look in her eye.
Watch Martinez did, as Morgan launched another hit, this one a triple that helped fuel a 14-run third inning as Zama crushed Yokota 22-6 in a DODEA Japan girls softball game at Camp Zama on March 15.
"I’m blessed," Jones said. "That’s exactly what it is. They’re great."
"They" are a group of eight freshmen, five of whom start, for the Trojans girls softball team. Most learned fastpitch in Zama’s youth sports program, eliminating much of the learning curve for them.
Morgan (.429 batting average, 4 doubles, 5 RBIs) starts at either shortstop or second base. Keri Prather (.341, 3 doubles, 6 RBIs) plays center fielder and is a backup pitcher for her junior sister, right-hander Alysa. Melissa Sybico and Silvia Dykstra (.350) play outfield, Kenyanna Brown (.375, 4 doubles, 2 homers, 12 RBIs) handles third base and Courtney Sharpe the other corner. Megan Phillabaum and Marie Ricafrente come off the bench.
"They hit and field really well," Alysa Prather said. "They’re good, all-around ballplayers. Our freshmen are better than a lot of the upperclassmen in skills."
The idea that so many freshmen play such important roles doesn’t throw them.
"We don’t really think about that," Keri Prather said. "We’re just having fun."
The starters sit in at least the top five in every hitting category for the Trojans. As of last weekend’s Zama Invitational jamboree, they are 6-4 and have faced up to many of the best teams in the Pacific:
n They’ve won big. Their first four were by an average 8.75 margin. "I’ve never had a start to a season like that," Jones said.
n They’ve come from behind. Until March 31, two-time DODEA Japan champion Nile C. Kinnick had been unbeaten, but Zama rallied from 5-1 down in the seventh to win 7-5, then again from a 5-0 deficit to edge the Red Devils 12-11.
n And they’ve learned from defeat. The Trojans went 1-3 in the Zama Invitational, but lost just 4-3 to last year’s DODEA Japan tournament champion Kadena of Okinawa on Friday and pounded Kubasaki of Okinawa 14-4 in five innings on Saturday.
"I’m really impressed with them," Jones said, adding that she knew they were athletic, had good coaching and gained fastpitch ability from youth ball. "I was kind of worried about their knowledge of the game. Knowing what to do, what plays are important. That comes with time."
That learning curve accelerated thanks to the Zama Invitational.
"It was so worth it," Jones said, especially seeing Kadena and Kubasaki — each went 3-1 and each has players with far more experience than Zama.
"They are so fundamentally sound," Jones said of her Okinawa rivals. "They get much more time on the field, fundamental and skill building."
So, after the Zama Invitational, Jones sat with her young charges, and they went over "rules and situational plays."
"That’s going to help us a lot" in next month’s Far East tournament on Okinawa, she said. "By having athleticism and homing in on fundamental skills, we should be far better at Far East. And I’d not have learned that had we not had the chance to see Kubasaki and Kadena play. A lot of things we can do better, that make a difference … in certain situations."
That the players wanted to learn those situations and rules was an example of the type of student Jones is coaching this spring. They’re not just solid athletes, but solid in the classroom as well, she said.
"You’re looking at six of the highest averages in the freshman class," Jones said of Morgan, Dykstra, Keri Prather, Sybico, Brown and Sharpe. "Great students. Don’t get in trouble. No discipline problems. I don’t have to worry about eligibility reports. How many coaches can say that? Not many."
"They’re the kind of kids who are active, want to do a lot of things, just great to be around," Zama athletics director and freshman class advisor Ed Fogell said. "This is one of the best groups I’ve had."
It’s helped build such chemistry within the team that Keri Prather said it feels as if they’ve been playing together a long time.
"We all get along so well," she said. "If you don’t get along, it’s not going to be a good team, because there’ll be so much drama. But our team — we sing, we cheer, we have chemistry, and it helps when we play."
That chemistry hasn’t gone unnoticed by opposing teams.
"That’s what I’ve come to expect from Zama," Kinnick coach Danel MacWhyte said. "I’ve always seen that. We just like to be with them. They’re athletes, they’re ballplayers and they’re good kids."
Having both the ability to play and win plus team chemistry has Jones "in heaven," she said; her past teams have usually had one or the other. "I have both this year, and I’m really, really happy."