Laura Caldwell Cunningham can remember when she was in middle school, sitting on the hill beyond right field at Bellefonte’s O’Leary Field to watch Lady Red Raider softball games. The girls playing in front of her were her heroes.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, I want to do that someday,’” the 2005 Bellefonte graduate said. “That looks amazing. I was sitting on that hill, watching those girls play, wanting to be a part of that.”
Cunningham did become a part of that, and went on to pitch in college, her skills and abilities honed from the annual challenges on the local fields.
There are a few near-certainties for spring in central Pennsylvania, and among them: winter won’t go away as fast as we want it to, and Centre County high schools will have some of the best softball teams in the region, if not the state.
“It’s a rich tradition and history of softball around here, something our community and our girls have grown up with,” Cunningham said. “It’s almost an accepted norm that we’re going to excel at softball.”
The strength of the local programs is tested early and often when they battle each other – like Monday’s rematch between Philipsburg-Osceola and Bald Eagle Area. P-O won the first meeting last week. In between, the Lady Eagles tangled with Bellefonte. The teams beat up on each other, then frequently beat up many other teams around District 6 and the state.
“It brings out the best in us,” BEA senior Zoey Surovec said last week after the first contest with P-O. “We know we have to play our ‘A’ game to beat them.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say the best softball teams in District 6, historically, come from Centre County. No program has won more District 6 titles than any of the five local programs, and the 64 district trophies earned by BEA, P-O, Bellefonte, Penns Valley and State College in softball is way more than the 47 by all of the rest of the district schools combined.
According to the district’s softball page, State College leads with 22 district titles and Bellefonte has 19, followed by 12 for P-O, six for BEA and five for Penns Valley, which is tied with two other schools for fifth place on that list. The Lady Little Lions, Lady Red Raiders and Lady Mounties all added to their totals just last year.
“It’s always been a tough league and we’ve always felt that way,” said Penns Valley coach Tessa Deardorff, a 2011 graduate of the school who played collegiately at Lebanon Valley. “We’re so close together and there’s a lot of competitiveness there.”
The success is not just against district teams. Each of the five schools has won a state title, and they have a total of eight PIAA trophies among them, plus 10 more state finals appearances. The Lady Mounties almost added to those totals, advancing to the state semifinals last season.
P-O coach Jim Gonder, who has better than 640 career wins and two state titles, likens the softball traditions in the area to the way wrestling is for boys, with generations following the same paths.
“A lot of the teams, the sisters have played, the mothers have played,” said Gonder, who figures he has four girls on his current roster who are daughters of players he also coached. “It’s kind of ingrained around here. It’s like wrestling around here – it’s what young girls do.”
Gonder also thinks he has had at least one second-generation Lady Mountie on his roster each season over the past decade.
He knows the roots of his current team got fed in another way – when the PIAA championship games were moved to Penn State’s Beard Field. His last state title team won it all in 2011, and dozens of girls from youth leagues were in the stadium’s seats watching their heroes celebrate. A few of those girls are now sitting in his team’s dugout this season.
The quality of play does not stop with the high school graduations either. College programs around the state are littered with Centre County high school alumni.
“Playing against those teams definitely helped me better myself in the game,” Deardorff said. “It’s definitely a whole different ballgame once you get to the collegiate level, but the tougher league you come from the better prepared you are for that tough competition at the higher level.”
Before he took over the Bellefonte program a few years ago, Fred Caldwell was the head coach at Penn State’s Altoona campus. When he was hired – leaving an assistant coaching position at Bellefonte – he said there was just one county product on that Altoona team’s roster. He made a point to “shop local,” and within a few years the program was rolling up the wins, and of the 14 women on this season’s roster, four are county natives.
Caldwell, and other area coaches, point out another reason for the success is the quality of coaching and the years of experience. Gonder and BEA’s Don Lucas have been guiding programs for better than three decades, with most of Lucas’s time spent leading Penns Valley, and Caldwell and assistant coach John Wetzler also have decades of associations with their teams. Even State College coach Jim Schaper was involved with the Lady Little Lion program for many years before he took over last season.
It also has helped that most of the girls in the area play summer travel ball, and many of those teams have practically the same rosters as the high school teams, so they have the familiarity of teammates for much longer stretches than some opponents.
Caldwell’s daughter, Laura, turned all that she learned into a very successful college career. By the time she graduated from St. Francis in 2009, she had a slew of program records and one historical win – coming back home as a senior and pitching the Red Flash to the program’s first win over Penn State.
“That was kind of a defining moment in my softball career,” said Cunningham, who has been an assistant coach for her father both at Penn State-Altoona and Bellefonte.
That moment was made possible years earlier, when she sat under those pine trees on the hill in Bellefonte, inspired by girls she was watching and the traditions that are hard to resist.
“There’s definitely a sense of pride,” Cunningham said. “Not only for myself and for the team, but for this community because there is this rich tradition with Centre County softball that you want to be a part of something that is so well known and you want to keep that going.”