Softball Hits It Out of the Park
By Gary Lambrecht
Kori Sorensen ’19 figures she speaks for her teammates, when Sorensen considers how well her decisions to attend the Naval Academy and play club fast-pitch softball have turned out.
Besides the fact that the Midshipmen can flat-out play the game—as their mid-April record of 15-0, including an already-clinched Mid-Atlantic North Conference title, strongly suggested—there is the tightly-knit fabric that binds this group.
“A few years ago, I never even dreamed I’d be here, but this place and this team are perfect for me,” says Sorensen, who had pitched to a perfect, 6-0 record with a 0.25 earned run average so far in 2016-17.
“Every one of my wins [15 over two seasons] has been a team effort. My defense and our hitters have been tremendous,” she adds. “I love going to practice and pitching to my girls, even if they’re hitting bombs off me. Every single person on this team is a character.”
As one of 124 schools represented in the National Club Softball Association, the Mids certainly have displayed plenty of character.
A year after Navy highlighted its fifth trip to the NCSA Nationals in the previous six seasons by finishing eighth—the best ending in the history of a program spanning at least a quarter-century—the Mids appear primed to make another splash at the annual event in Columbus, GA, where the national championship competition will run from 19-21 May.
Under sixth-year coach Jim Hanley, Navy, which will compete in Harrisonburg, VA at the Mid-Atlantic Regionals 22-23 April, sports an ideal blend of excellent pitching, high-average and power hitting, speed, athleticism and mental toughness. This year’s team might be the school’s best ever.
And there is no shortage of personalities on this squad. Sorensen refers to the team’s Third Class Midshipman contingent (herself, Caroline Lewandowski ‘19, Sarah Bond’ 19 and Erin Torrez ’19) as “our four clowns.” Second baseman/outfielder Elizabeth Bostian ’17, who had a .428 batting average in mid-April, is known as “The Chiller” or “The Sloth,” a nod to Bostian’s refusal to waste energy. “Liz doesn’t look like she’s working that hard, but she’s actually working her butt off,” Sorensen says.
Light moments aside, there is no doubt about the serious side of this team when it steps between the lines. There is no doubt the Mids mean business, even with an annual club budget of about $9,000 (largely provided through the Midshipmen Welfare Fund), in a setting that allows for limited travel and no recruiting of high school players.
“These kids are very motivated. They all want to win at everything they do. They’re all Type A [personalities],” says Hanley, a former varsity baseball coach at Air Force (1984-87) and a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel who directs candidate guidance at Naval Academy’s Office of Admissions.
“The only trouble we have with these players is we have to pull them back in practice sometimes because they just keep going so hard,” Hanley adds.
“It’s an unbelievable group, not only with their talent but with just the right attitude. We don’t have whining. We don’t have to put pressure on them to win. It just amazes me, the kind of kids that come into our program. What we get is a pretty good reflection of what’s in the Brigade of Midshipmen. It’s impressive.”
The club sports experience hardly resembles the varsity life. As Hanley recalls, “If you’re coaching a varsity team, that is your life. It’s become a year-round thing. This is totally different.”
At the club level, the athletes essentially run the logistical show, from arranging transportation and lodging on road trips to putting in movement orders to rescheduling practices.
Depending on the busy schedules that weigh on Midshipmen in the form of military and academic duties, the softball team might practice two, three or four times in a given week.
Unlike some varsity athletes, for example, Hanley says players must make every formation that is required and attend every parade practice. Club players have been known to miss post-season tournaments due to factors such as internships or Ring Dance commitments that have trimmed the roster in previous trips to the Nationals.
“Club sports is a good mix,” says Emily Guare ’17, the team captain who has played several infield positions with the Mids. “We can be really competitive, without having the huge time demands [of varsity]. We can focus mainly on school and still be in a competitive situation. A lot of athletes who aren’t recruited here end up walking on with a varsity team or playing club sports. Everyone is an athlete.”
As Navy’s leadoff hitter, Guare has been the longtime sparkplug for the Navy offense. A year ago, she hit .406 and led team in runs scored (36) and steals (17). This season, Guare leads Navy with nine steals. Her 23 runs scored ties for the team lead with Torrez, the team’s power-hitting shortstop. Torrez has hit a combined eight home runs and driven in 54 runs dating to last season.
CDR Dave Shaffer, the team’s third-year officer representative, has a lasting image of Guare fixed in his mind. At last year’s nationals, Guare was suffering from a severe cold. That didn’t stop or slow down the product of La Plata High School in Charles County, MD.
“Emily knocks a ball into the outfield for a hit, runs to first base, leans over and coughs so much I thought she was going to cough up a lung,” Shaffer recalls. “She says, ‘No, I’m fine.’ Then she steals second on the next pitch. That’s the kind of people we have here.”
“Our ability to maintain our endurance and play tired is huge,” Guare says. “It’s not easy to play that third game in a day in 85-degree weather. But our conditioning as Midshipmen comes in handy. I’m just proud of the way the girls approach every game and every opponent. No one is arrogant about it.”
The Mids, who have had highly-competitive regular-season trips to Virginia, and defending national champion James Madison cancelled this spring due to inclement weather, have dominated their competition since last fall.
Navy also has done its share of winning over the years. Navy won five straight Mid-Atlantic North championships beginning in 2009 and took two straight North Atlantic South titles before clinching this year’s conference crown.
But until last year’s team finished 20-11, Hanley’s Navy teams had not lasted longer than a day after heading to the NCSA Nationals. The Mids changed that in 2016 by knocking off UC-Davis, Grand Valley State and Florida State, before being eliminated in extra innings by Florida.
It happened in part because the heart of the Navy lineup—including Torrez, pitcher/first baseman Kaylyn Young ’17, left fielder Amanda Mock ’17 and third baseman Emily Horman ’18—got clutch hits and home runs and drove in runs consistently.
And it happened because Sorensen, who will turn 25 next fall and is known affectionately as “Grandma” among the Mids, got on a roll early and rarely let up. She went 9-2 as a plebe last season, with a 1.36 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 82 innings.
“Kori put us on her back at nationals last year and carried us,” Hanley says. “The only time she whines is because she can’t pitch every inning of every game. She has this energy that kind of takes over.”
Sorensen’s unusual path to Annapolis started with a two-year stint at Division III Eastern Nazarene College, in her hometown of Quincy, MA. She competed there in softball, volleyball and basketball, then decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy, becoming a Hospital Corpsman, before applying to the academy at age 22.
Sorensen says she started pitching underhand at age five. She adds that her grandfather, Kenneth Sorensen, 92, once beat the late Eddie Feigner, the legendary hard-throwing, barnstorming showman of softball.
“I knew I wasn’t good enough to play a varsity sport here, but I also knew they had a good club softball team,” she says. “Having this do-over has been amazing.”
Kaylyn Young has been a pitcher for four years at Navy, and probably could have excelled at a different Division I school. But the native of Cumming, Ga. says she felt the call to serve her country in 10th grade at South Forsyth High School, where Young holds the career record with 66 RBI.
Young has done it all for Navy. Last year, she hit .413 for the Mids. This year, after working out of the bullpen previously, Young has stepped up as the no. 2 starter (4-0, 0.73 ERA).
“I stopped playing travel ball my junior year [in high school]. I wanted to serve my country,” Young says. “We’ve bonded so much over these four years. We’re really close. We don’t have drama on this team.”
Mock (.407, team-high 26 RBI in 2016, .392 this season) has shown a flair for the dramatic. Two years ago, she hit five home runs at the national tournament, including a walk-off grand slam in an elimination game.
Mock starred at Chelsea High in Birmingham, AL. After helping Chelsea win a state title as a junior, she says she gave up softball to concentrate on pursuing a college basketball scholarship on the AAU circuit. She envisioned herself as a women’s basketball walk-on at Navy, but found club softball more appealing.
“We have a caliber of talent that could compete at the Division I level, but [club ball] is more laid-back,” Mock says. “It allows you to be more present in the [Bancroft] hall, and to concentrate more on your grades and military responsibilities. The [small] budget forces us to be more creative. We’re willing to work hard for the person next to us, just like varsity athletes."
Horman was gifted enough to be a five-year varsity softball player at Smithtown West High School, NY, after she made the team as an eighth grader. Before committing to Navy, she had Division I, II and III schools recruiting her to play softball or field hockey. After a year in prep school, Horman was one of three plebes to play Navy softball.
"It wasn’t as serious as I was used to when I was playing softball year-round as a kid—long hours, strict coaches, lots of work,” says Horman, an outstanding defender who was a hitting a whopping .720 with 13 RBI in mid-April, a year after batting .304 for the Mids.
“This is definitely a better lifestyle choice,” she adds. “It’s one less thing to drive us crazy, and it’s a real outlet. I’ve made my best friends at school through softball. We’ve had some great experiences at nationals.”
One experience lingers brightly in Hanley’s mind. Shortly after getting eliminated in last year’s national tournament by Florida, the Mids were interrupted by loud noise in their postgame huddle. “The whole Florida section was standing and cheering for us,” he recalls. “It was an incredible moment, probably the proudest I’ve had at Navy.”