NORWOOD — Carol Savino has coached the game, in various positions and communities, for 50 years, the last four at the helm of the varsity softball program at Norwood High.
Two weeks ago, she realized that she had a pretty special group.
It was a cold and rainy Friday afternoon, the final hours before spring vacation, and her Mustangs were not scheduled to play a game until the following Wednesday.
So the 68-year-old Savino, normally a stickler for detailed, three-hour practices, made the workout optional.
“They said they wanted to practice,” Savino said. “Same thing with Monday [Patriots Day]. I told them straight: ‘You can have Monday off. Or you can practice. It’s up to you.’ And not one of them said they wanted Monday off.
“Their vacation was no vacation. It was all softball. And yet I had no real grumblings. That says a lot about the kids and what they’re looking for.”
That commitment, Savino contends, is a big reason why Norwood started the season winning six of its first eight games. Two nine-inning losses aside, a convenient mix of senior leadership and talented underclassmen — and the ensuing camaraderie — has the Mustangs in a good position to capture another Bay State Conference Herget Division crown after finishing fourth in 2012.
This edition of Mustangs is much healthier than last spring.
Shortstop Makenna Lane missed nearly half of the 2012 season with a bad back. Pitcher Jill Shepherd had tendinitis in her right (throwing) shoulder and a couple of badly pulled muscles. First baseman Jess Gorman was out most of the season with wrist and ankle injuries sustained during the basketball season.
A year later, though, those three are senior captains — along with outfielder Kelly Duggan and designated player Sydney Cherella — and key cogs in the Mustang machine.
Gorman is a staple at first base, while Shepherd has been the victor in all six Norwood wins, including a no-hitter against Brookline on April 4.
Shepherd, who will pitch at the University of Massachusetts Boston next season, features mainly a fastball and changeup, but can also mix in a drop ball.
“When it’s on, it’s a nasty pitch,” Savino said.
The 5-foot-7 righthander can hit her spots and get outs, according to Savino, and when she runs into problems, she knows there will be at least one teammate behind her, both figuratively and literally: Lane.
Lane is among the team batting leaders with a .478 average, while playing a smooth shortstop.
On Tuesday afternoon, she turned nearly every double play, some of them barehanded, during simulated infield practice — the team was doing the best it could in a gymnasium that soggy evening — and according to Savino she often takes the time to instruct the younger players on how to read fly balls.
“You don’t have to watch very long to see how good she is. As a freshman I just took one look and said, ‘Oh my gosh,’ ” Savino said.
“Having been injured, she felt bad last year. She worked through a lot. She played when she should not have because she felt she was important to the team. And she was right — she is.”
Lane is still battling two herniated discs, but after last season left a bad taste in her mouth, she decided to play through it as much as she can.
“It’s better than it was last year,” Lane said. “It still hurts, but I just have to suck it up.”
Should that pain become too much to bear, there is a contingency plan in place — Lane has been working with sophomore second baseman Alyssa Chamberlain on the art of playing shortstop. Duggan (.524) will likely take over in the circle if Shepherd is unable to throw.
This season, Savino has depth with a number of talented newcomers. There are six freshmen on the roster, including the Michael twins — Kasey (.438), the starting left fielder, and Kristina, a reserve infielder. Their older brother, Kenny, is the ace of the Norwood baseball team.
A pair of sophomores, third baseman Kristen Flynn (.478) and catcher Erin Garczynski (.500), are also key cogs of an attack scoring nearly eight runs per game and a sound defensive unit.
“She has a gun for an arm,” Savino said, referencing Garczynski’s 1.6-second pop time. “She’s a very athletic kid.”
The result is a highly competitive Mustang team, a squad with much higher hopes than last year’s 10-9 edition. It’s a team with a hope — a reasonable hope — to recapture the Herget Division crown, which Norwood won three times in a row before Dedham won the title last year.
The Mustangs want to prove that was a mere anomaly.
“I hope it goes back to normal,” Lane said. Continued...