Team embraces tradition and finds power in navigating new season
Despite the challenges the spring sports season presents this year, tradition still runs in the blood of the ELHS softball team. They are ready to make the most out of this season, players and experienced coaching staff included. Much of the team’s tenacity radiates from head coach and newly-retired physical education teacher, Judy Deeb, who is now 50 years, 49 seasons, and more than 600 wins deep into her coaching career at ELHS.
“Ms. Deeb is a powerhouse of high school sports. She advocated for girls to be able to play sports at public high schools in CT, and she has built the ELHS softball program since practically the beginning,” said assistant coach and history teacher, Sara Griffith.
After the cancellation of last year’s season and witnessing graduating seniors’ disappointment and exhaustion, Ms. Deeb said her coaching style has evolved, too. “I’m still competitive at my core, but I have a new understanding for how important sports are to players, and that positivity and ‘going with the flow’ is as important as playing well,” said Ms. Deeb.
Ms. Deeb’s leadership serves as a strong stabilizer in light of the complex season ahead, since the coaches never met underclassmen players until tryouts on March 27. Senior captain Jaylyn Mueller described tryouts as “different but good,” as tryouts were held outside at Veteran’s Field in Niantic instead of inside the North Gym and players were split into three groups of eight to maintain safe distance from one another. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) released spring sport guidelines on March 10. Softball is classified as a moderate risk sport and comes with a few unique regulations. For both softball and baseball, catchers will be the only players required to wear a mask during active play, and all other players, coaches, and officials must wear masks as they are not actively competing. The catcher mask requirement will be re-evaluated during the season. Additionally, players and coaches will trade their dugout snack staples, including iconic sunflower seeds and hit-or-miss spearmint leaves, for hand sanitizer stations and socially distant seating. “With no season last year, it was tough not being able to play with my best friends that graduated, but I am so grateful to have my senior season,” said Mueller. “I’ll miss our team and playing the game, and I will definitely miss playing at Veteran’s Field since it’s where I’ve played since I was 8. I grew up on that field.”
While there is certainly lots missing from a typical season, the fresh potential of a young team coupled with the positive energy from players and coaches invites hidden highlights. “There is competition at almost every position this year, and the positivity among the girls is unbelievable. All the coaches agree,” said Ms. Deeb. “We want to see growth from players throughout the season and we want to see girls smile when they learn new skills. Coaches come home tired but with smiles on our faces from teaching these players and seeing them get excited.”
Regardless of the season’s outcome, coaches are focused most on building a tight-knit team that can play hard, smart, and cohesively. “We are all figuring this season out. Girls should go out onto the field excited to be playing a team sport again,” said Ms. Griffith. “[Coaches] do not want anyone to be intimidated by the process or seasoned players because we are building a group where everyone’s contributions will be valued, whatever they may be.”