It was the end-of-the-year party for the Bordentown Middle School softball team, and a team photo was in order. The 8th-graders lined up in the back row, the unsuspecting 7th-graders were in the middle and the 6th-graders were in the front.
“We all had a piece of cake,” 8th-grader Allison Hoppe said. “She said cheese and we all smashed it on (the 7th-graders) faces. They didn’t even know about it. Then everyone grabbed the rest of the cake and threw it at each other.”
It’s that kind of story that makes it difficult to define the legacy of the 2019 Bobcats. Are they to be known as an outstanding team by virtue of their 11-1 record; or should they be defined as a high-spirited crew who loved to have food fights.
How about combining the two and saying they will go down in the annals of BMS as fun-loving winners.
It all starts at the top, with fourth-year coach Chelsea Kehr.
“Coach Chelsea’s way of coaching made it really fun,” Hoppe said. “It made it almost like we weren’t just there to win every game, but we’re supposed to act as a team and have fun.”
It’s a lesson the standout pitcher hopes to embrace moving forward.
“I think all the things she’s taught us will help us throughout high school,” Hoppe said. “Not only in softball but how to have the attitude that just makes it fun but keeps it serious enough to win. “
The fact her players understood and embraced that philosophy probably makes Kehr happier than the 34-2 record her 8th-grade class registered over the past three years. In Kehr’s world, it’s great to win, but it’s even better to enjoy the journey.
“If there’s one takeaway I try to give them, it’s to remember it’s just a game,” the fourth-year coach said. “If you’re not having fun then you’re doing softball wrong. I tell them ‘You’re really not gonna remember the strikeouts, you’re not gonna remember the errors in the field, the thing you’re gonna remember is you had a food fight at your end-of-the-year party. You’re gonna remember somebody tripped over first base and fell flat on their face. You’re gonna remember those things with your friends more than you will the bad things that happened.’
“I always try to remind them of that —don’t take it so seriously. You’re not getting your college scholarship today. Just have fun with your friends. And this team was so much fun.”
At the same time, the coach instills a work ethic that is necessary as they move up to the high school team, which happened to be the No. 1 seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III sectional tournament this year. It was also a reminder that last year’s 12-0 record would not be repeated just by showing up.
“I told them ‘You have to remember that you have to get better, and that just because you did something great in your career doesn’t mean that you can’t always improve yourself and always be better than what they were last year,’” the coach continued. “I think the girls took that and ran with it. You could see the younger ones look at the eighth-graders and be like ‘They’re so good.’ I tell them ‘That could be your guys in two years, you just have to keep working as hard as you are.’”
That kind of attitude is what Kehr calls “the beauty of Bordentown softball.” She lauds the parents who drive their children to hitting lessons and pitching clinics. She praises the recreation and travel ball coaches for establishing solid foundational skills that make her job that much easier.
“I only get them for a couple of months,” she said. “What they learn other places is passed down from grade to grade to grade and it’s so nice
to see. They all can compete with each other and you can tell they all still love each other. That’s what breeds the winning kind of mentality in Bordentown.”
Having mirror-image ace pitchers doesn’t hurt either. Hoppe was joined in the circle by twin sister Erin and the two are as different in styles as they are similar in looks. Allison went undefeated in middle school with a standout curve and screwball. This year she added a more effective change-up that stays down instead of getting up in a hitter’s power zone. Erin does not have quite as much zip on her ball but keeps it down in the zone. She is also extremely stoic, maintaining a poker face whether things are going good or bad.
“They really complement each other well,” Kehr said.
When they are not pitching, they are side-by-side with Allison on first and Erin at second. Playing short is the athletic Cadence Klemic, “who has a cannon arm” and who also saw some time as pitcher. When she threw, 6th-grader Kaitlin Hoppe —yes, she’s a sister—played shortstop and “man, is she good,” Kehr said. She also pitches, meaning the cupboard won’t be bare when big sisters graduate.
“She’s probably one of best sixth-grade pitchers I’ve had come up,” Kehr said. “She is awesome. You could put her anywhere on the field and she’s one of those people that gets it. She tries hard no matter where you put her. She’s got a really good softball IQ. She just understands the game.”
Lily Nucera handled most of the catching after not coming out as a 7th-grader. “She’s not a bad hitter but she really is a stud catcher for me,” Kehr said. “She did so great, people weren’t running on her. She didn’t even need to throw anybody out.”
The remaining 8th-graders were Sam Stillwell, Mya Gronostajski and Angelina Demkowicz. The latter is one of just two players on the team who doesn’t play travel but in this, her only year with the Bobcats, she
showed improvement, caught a few games, roped some line drive hits and “was always a battler.”
Gronostajski was the main third baseman and the kind of hitter analytics-crazed MLB managers would love to have. Numerous times she would fall behind 0-2 only to work the count full and torture pitchers with foul balls until she got a ball to handle. Gronostajski also plays out of position, as she is usually and outfielder in travel.
Stillwell was injured much of the year, but is probably the greatest symbol of this year’s team.
“She played a great second base and she’s got one of the best personalities on the team,” Kehr said. “She keeps it light in the dugout, she’s always joking around. She’s the one who reminds people your coach can also be your friend as long as you respect them as a coach. She totally understands how to play pranks on coaches, how to joke around, call us out when we mess up and make it funny. She’s a hoot.”
The cake-adorned 7th-graders featured outfielders Emeline Kovac, KC Benton and Lauren Scharko, and utility player Lilly Haines. Kovac is the team’s lone slap hitter and although she just began doing it last year, Kehr said she is making tremendous strides. Scharko and Benton are human vacuums in center and right field.
“Between those two together, I don’t think we had a single ball drop in the outfield,” Kehr said. “I don’t think KC made an error and she has one of the best arms I’ve ever seen on a kid. Lauren is such a good outfielder. She reads the ball so well off the bat. It’s something you have or you don’t, and she just has it.”
Haines is the team’s other non-travel player who has improved immensely over the season according to Kehr. She also understands what team spirit is all about.
“She’s always positive, always happy, always cheering her friends on,” the coach said. “I always harp on the girls about how important it is to stay up in the dugout and really be positive talking to your friends all the time. She’s phenomenal at that.”
A spirited 6th-grade class included Brielle Besserman, Natalie Crowell, Mackenzie Morton, Kendall Lampman and Bella Nucera (Lily’s sister).They were the heart of the Bordentown Little League state championship team last year.
“Because we had such a strong seventh and eighth grade bench a lot of them didn’t play a lot this year,” Kehr said. “They got their innings here and there, but I would say they were some of the most positive people I’ve ever met. They were the funniest people on the bench. And you put any one of them in the game and they’ll get a hit. They were a class that took advantage of whatever was given to them.”
Put it all together and it is a pretty good sign that the future looks as bright as the present for Scotties softball.
“I’m really excited for next year,” Allison Hoppe said. “It’s cool we know some of the older girls. It will be fun to play with him.”
Which is exactly what Kehr hopes for her players.