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Valley News – Content, but not satisfied

NORWICH — When the Hannover High softball team travels to Lebanon on Friday, they’ll be loading bats, balls and a healthy dose of optimism onto their bus.

The Bears are 0-4 starting and 4-29 combined over the past three seasons. But you certainly wouldn’t know that by looking at them.

In a 24-1 loss to the previously winless Bow on Monday, Hannover’s players competed intensely, made several fine field plays and left Dresden Athletic Fields upbeat and chattering about the contest.

“It’s such a happy bunch of kids, and I don’t want them to lose that,” said fifth-year coach Mariruth Graham, a local realtor and former varsity player and coach. “But they want to win, and they don’t just lose.”

Hannover and Lebanon are in nearly identical softball situations. Neither has much of a power system at the elementary and intermediate levels, which means many players start the sport in ninth grade. Neither has a full-time paid assistant coach or junior varsity team.

The Bears in NHIAA Division II and the Raiders in Division III often face polished opponents who play club softball in the summer and fall. This produces a specific unevenness in pitching, where experienced enemies can throw over 50 mph and exhibit three different pitch types.

The biggest hurdle in softball for both Upper Valley schools, however, is that athletes are turned away by lacrosse, track, and crew. Others choose to specialize in soccer or basketball at the club level in the spring. Those who stay are often hesitant to join a team that loses so often. Hanover have been outscored, 63-1, so far this spring; Lebanon also has, 116-64.

So why not ask the NHIAA to play in Division III, where Graham said the Bears have played the past two seasons? Well, that didn’t make much difference.

“I found Division III schools don’t have as many spring sports as we do, so more spring athletes are playing softball,” said the coach, whose team travels to games. on the road in the same vehicle as the Hannover baseball team. “It balances out. Division III rides are much shorter on the bus, but the competition is just as good.

Additionally, the NHIAA recently implemented a rule that teams requesting to play at a lower level than indicated by their registration are ineligible for the playoffs. While presumably created to keep teams from dropping out of a division in search of an easier path to a state title, it doesn’t seem to take into account long-struggling programs like Hannover and Lebanon softball. .

Lebanon sporting director Mike Stone faced a tough choice last year when he had to decide whether or not to ask his softball team to stay in Division III after the current two-day programming cycle ended. years after this season. Stay grounded and have no playoff chance, or be put back in Division II with bigger schools?

Stone, at that point optimistic that he could hire an experienced coach and that enough players would sign up to allow Lebanon to field a JV team for a second straight season, made the latter choice. But two candidate coaches failed and fewer players joined the program. So the Raiders (1-4), led by freshman coach and attendance secretary Bethany Robinson, will join the Bears in Division II next spring.

For Graham, winning and losing is secondary. The former Dartmouth assistant coach had two children in the Hanover school system. She believes students shouldn’t just jump from grind to grind when they leave the classroom for the playground.

“There’s a lot of pressure in Hannover academically, and it’s a great opportunity to learn how to fail and recover,” said Graham, who attended the University of Virginia. “No one will get hurt, and it won’t ruin your college applications if you miss a ball on the ground. It’s more about what you do after and how to deal with adversity in real time.

Graham, who constantly talks and teaches during practices and games, is aided in this effort by main receiver Haily Stewart, the Bears’ best and most experienced player. A club ball competitor in college, she’s a four-year-old starter and a fountain of positivity.

“I never fell in love with this sport,” Stewart said. “This is my happy place. We focus on overall knowledge of the game and what you need to do with the ball in a given situation.

“Physical errors can only be controlled to a certain extent, but you have to keep your head in the game.”

To that end, Graham took his players to a Dartmouth College contest earlier this season, asking each of them to monitor their position on the pitch and discuss how and why certain plays were made or missed.

The Bears also gathered at her house one night to watch a college game on ESPN. Graham often interrupted the telecast to ask questions and point out how higher level players handle events such as an abandoned third strike, tagging a steal and the inside steal rule.

“You have to play this game a lot to figure it out, and it’s helpful if you start at 9, but most of our players don’t,” Graham said. “After the games, I let the girls talk. It’s better when they talk about what we did well and what we need to improve.

Said Stewart: “I love these players and this opportunity to play whether we win or not.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at [email protected]