New era of Saints softball

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Tina Kelly remembers the butterflies of showing up for softball tryouts as a kid.

That first glimpse of spring weather brought the ping of aluminum bats and the popping of gloves at Barry Playground in South Philly. 

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“When I was a little girl, we had a softball sign-up day and it was like the biggest day of the year,” said Kelly, a 1996 Saint Maria Goretti High School graduate. “There would be like 100 girls there and then summer programs. I remember at Goretti, we probably had about 70 girls try out for the team. Now, it’s pulling teeth to get nine girls to play.”

As a player, Kelly enjoyed packed dugouts each time she took the field for her school. It inspired her to continue playing competitive softball for the next 25 years in adult fast pitch leagues around South Philly. 

This year she took over as the new high school coach at Neumann-Goretti High School, taking over a program that is badly in need of a shot in the arm as the team has teetered on extinction in recent years. 

Kelly is fully focused on its revival.

“When I was asked to do this, I had a tear roll down my cheek because I was so happy to do it,” she said. “I didn’t expect coaching to give me that feeling again that I had as a player. It’s been such a blessing.”

The challenges are in plain sight. Last year, Neumann-Goretti had only nine players on the roster in its second year back from a two-year pandemic pause. This year’s roster has grown slightly, but the Saints were still forced to forfeit their first Philadelphia Catholic League game at Conwell-Egan on April 8 when a couple of players fell ill during the school day, leaving only eight healthy bodies willing to take the trip to Fairless Hills. A day later, they were back in action at Archbishop Wood where they fell 15-0 to a talented squad that had returned from an elite softball tournament in Florida. 

Better days will come. Kelly is going to make sure of it.

Neumann-Goretti gets a force out at second base in a game against Archbishop Wood. Photo by Mark Zimmaro

“I have a lot of talented girls here,” Kelly said. “But I only have four girls back from last year. Three are freshmen from St. Monica’s and we have a few other new kids that never picked up a bat in their life. It’s been really rough when it feels like everything is against you. But I don’t care. We’re going to keep on trying.”

The Saints are excited about the new coaching staff and fresh look at the sport.

“Last year was a little negative, but this year, everyone wants to be here and everyone wants to play,” said sophomore Destiny Potts. “We want to make this a good community and make people feel welcomed, even if they haven’t played before. It’s a good thing and we’re trying to recruit more people but I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”

It’s a good start. 

Neumann-Goretti has no shortage of athletes as it fields a flag football team and a robust cheerleading squad. But starting from the cellar of the Catholic League can be tough and oftentimes the games will be lopsided as the Saints establish their footing. 

Kelly is digging deeper to make sure the playing field is more level in future years. Aside from coaching at Neumann-Goretti, she is coaching at St. Monica’s where she will get a head start coaching future high schoolers. It’s a scramble but the payoff could be quite beneficial.

“I have parents there today coaching because I’m here (with Neumann-Goretti), but next year I will have more control of the schedule,” Kelly said. “The idea is now I will know the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade girls so I can build this thing I’ve been wanting to build. I still can’t understand why people don’t want to play softball.”

Neumann-Goretti coach Tina Kelly takes over the Saints softball team with hopes of growing the program from the ground up. Photo by Mark Zimmaro

Kelly is in talks with recreation centers to run softball clinics in South Philly to introduce youth players to the sport even earlier. 

“This is my goal right here,” Kelly said. “A year ago, I decided that there was something really lacking in my life. It was softball. And I wanted to do something for girls here in the city. A year ago I started calling recreation leagues looking for a space so I could set up my own program.”

Kelly’s influence has already grabbed the attention of current players who are enjoying a positive environment. 

“I think it’s a better community for all the girls now,” said sophomore shortstop Olivia Sywkiw. “We have coaches who are really uplifting and they really care about the team and for us to get better. Overall it’s a good place to be.”

Prior to starting their PCL schedule, the Saints won their first non-league game with an 8-5 victory over Friends Select School. Benchmarks like that might help draw more potential players.

“We’re trying to get more people to play,” said sophomore Brooklyn Grandelli. “We’re going to keep playing hard and work together as a team. It will come.”

It also helps to have a former player leading the charge.

“Coach (Kelly) experienced it and she’s a really good coach both off the field and on it,” Potts said. “They just want what’s best for us and the coaches are trying to bring this program back to life.”

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Mark Zimmaro
Mark Zimmaro
Mark Zimmaro is a reporter for the South Philly Review. Follow him on Twitter @mzimmaro or email at mzimmaro@newspapermediagroup.com

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