It was not the best of offensive starts for Emelia Bercaw this season, who collected just three hits in her first 11 at-bats after batting .382 for the Notre Dame High softball team as a sophomore.
Then again, the Robbinsville resident was busy trying to figure things out with both her glove and bat while getting rid of the last remnants of pain in her wrist.
Due to a numbers-overflow issue in the outfield, the centerfielder was moved to third base by coach Marty Schafer. Unfortunately, if there was anywhere in the infield she felt comfortable, it was at second.
Throw in the fact that Bercaw is in her first year of going from a full-swing, right-handed batter to a left-handed slap hitter, and it was easy to see how she was too busy thinking about things instead of letting her natural instincts take over. Oh, and there was also the little matter of recovering from a wrist injury, which occurred due to overuse.
Thus, her early plate appearances were underwhelming.
“I think it had something to do with my confidence,” she said. “In the field I was struggling a lot. I try not to let it get to me at bat, but it’s also my first season slapping. I started in August so I was dealing with that.”
Schafer soon realized that third base was doing more harm than good, and he moved Bercaw to the outfield, where she plays during travel ball. She eventually moved to second base, where she has a better infield comfort level. The wrist finally began to heal, and Bercaw was getting a better feel for slapping and suddenly everything came together.
As of May 21, Bercaw was hitting .457 out of the nine hole, with four doubles, 12 stolen bases, 11 RBI and 27 runs scored. In a four-game stretch from April 25 to May 1, she went 10-for-12 with eight runs scored.
“I started playing third at the beginning of last season and then I had the wrist injury so I was out,” she said. “I probably played third for about a quarter of the season. It went pretty well last season, but this season I was a little rusty. So, Coach Marty put me in the outfield for a couple games, which I’m very comfortable at. Then he moved me to second, which I’m also very comfortable at.”
And the more she slapped, the more comfortable she got at the plate.
“I’d been toying with the idea over the past four years but I was pretty good as a righty,” Bercaw said. “I just figured I would stick with that because that’s what I knew. But I got a lot faster and my wrist injury actually was worse when I was a righty hitter, so that also influenced it.”
In becoming a slapper, Bercaw not only had to cross over the plate, but begin running to first before the pitch even arrived. Robbinsville has one of the best in Mercer history at that in Chelsea Manto, and Bercaw has now given the township two strong slappers.
“It started with the footwork, like hitting off my left foot when that’s supposed to be your back foot,” Bercaw said of the adjustment. “That was a lot harder than being a righty. And the timing aspect of it, learning the different pitches and how they pitch you as a slapper made it a lot more challenging. But I’m definitely comfortable now.”
Although it was a litany of issues Bercaw was dealing with, Schafer took the bullet.
“This was on me,” he said. “I had her in the wrong position. I asked her to go outside of herself because we had a couple injuries. I needed her over at third, she wasn’t used to playing it. Once I got her back to second and she was comfortable and it’s been the Emelia of old. She’s having one heck of a year. Her problem is she’s good at everything. My problem is I’m loaded with outfielders so I had to move her in.”
Bercaw was born in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, the home of famed Indy car driver Mario Andretti. She started her athletic career as a gymnast but after moving to Robbinsville in third grade, decided to try something new. Bercaw joined Robbinsville Little League softball, “and it really just took off and I loved it.”
Bercaw moved on to travel ball and only played softball at Pond Road in eighth grade before entering Notre Dame. At that point, she had to leave her friends and teammates.
“I’ve grown up with the Robbinsville team,” said Bercaw, who currently plays travel ball with Raven Allie Taylor. “I’ve always been in the same league with them in rec ball and I was on the Robbinsville Rampage as a kid. I’ve always known them, and they’re really good athletes.”
She started in the outfield as a freshman and hit a modest .254. Schafer was an assistant that year, and immediately liked what he saw.
“I was down in the weight room in the cages, and I saw this kid hitting and I said, ‘Wow this kid’s gonna be good,’” the coach said. “I knew right there we had something special as a freshman.”
Her average spiked to .382 last year but the at-bats dropped by 25 due to the wrist injury.
“Getting hurt kind of affected my progress,” Bercaw said. “Just watching was awful. I just had faith that it would get better eventually. I worked as hard as I could in physical therapy to get back. It just made me appreciate playing even more.”
And she can appreciate being back to playing classical piano as well, which is a hobby she does to relax.
“It’s nice to be able to play, I just enjoy it,” she said.
Bercaw considers centerfield her best position, and she has been recruited by Rowan to play the outfield in two years. Her decision came without warning, as she was so impressive at one of the Profs hitting camps she immediately drew the staff’s attention. She returned for a second camp, and Rowan asked her to come on board.
“I accepted it,” she said. “It just felt right.”
For now, Bercaw is doing whatever she can to help the Irish make a strong tournament run after Robbinsville eliminated them from the Mercer County Tournament. Her versatility remains a key for ND.
“Being able to use Emilia in the infield has helped us to become a much better team than without her there,” Schafer said. “If there’s somebody injured we go to Emilia. She’s that utility infielder everybody needs. She’s gonna be my leadoff next year unless something changes. We keep her in the nine hole now because she turns the lineup over constantly. I think in the beginning she snuck up on people, they didn’t expect it. Now she is getting harder pitches thrown at her but she’s coming through time and time again.”