Moments after Tuesday’s game, State College senior Kayla Hawbaker jogged over to the outfield with a smile plastered on her face.
Her coach addressed his players with a grin. Freshman McKenzie Shannon even laughed, minutes after the crowd emptied the two sets of bleachers.
The scene might’ve seemed surreal to the Cumberland Valley crowd that set down chairs near the foul line — because the Lady Little Lions fell to the Lady Eagles on Tuesday, 5-3. But there was no sense of frustration in the home team’s dugout.
State College’s coach has emphasized the importance of patience with his young team — and even the seniors are remaining optimistic.
“These losses don’t mean anything to me because we’re just going to get better and progress,” a smiling Hawbaker said with a slight shrug. “What matters is the end of the season when we have the District 6 playoffs.”
The Lady Little Lions (2-4) are still searching for answers after losing six seniors from last season’s team. (This year, they’re down to three.) Coach Jim Schaper wants to use the first half of the season as a tryout of sorts, finding his best lineup, his top players and adjusting from there.
Hawbaker and Shannon didn’t make excuses for Tuesday’s loss; they just pointed to the positive. There was Shannon’s three-run homer in the fifth inning, the fact State College rallied after finding itself down 3-0 following the game’s first six pitches (single, error, homer) and how it settled down after several other mistakes to end the innings.
The senior and freshman exuded confidence Tuesday evening, even after the loss, because they both sensed the potential of this team. In the second game of the year, they hammered a solid Mifflin County squad by a 16-5 score. A 5-3 loss Tuesday to four-year starting pitcher Jen Hanshaw, who led her team to the state championship as a freshman, is just part of the learning process.
“You can’t get down on yourself when you’re trying your hardest,” Shannon added.
Schaper cautioned before the season that his young team would likely be in for an up-and-down year. He echoed that sentiment before Tuesday’s game, and again afterward. Three freshmen started Tuesday — Shannon at right field, Morgan Arnold at shortstop, Sophia Keene at pitcher — and more than half the lineup consisted of underclassmen.
In the season opener, Schaper recalled with a laugh how his shortstop “looked like a deer in headlights.” Shannon was “a little jumpy, a little nervous.” But in just a few quick games, those personalities have already evolved into a quiet confidence.
Even Tuesday’s opposing coach could sense that.
“I’ll be honest — when I first saw them take the infield, I wasn’t real sure what we were going to get,” Cumberland Valley coach Greg Williams said. “But they played pretty tough. Their hitters were in there taking cuts and Jen’s a four-year pitcher. They weren’t intimidated, so (Schaper) has got something there — it’ll grow and get better.”
State College trailed 5-0 after the fourth inning, thanks to a 3-0 first frame and solo shots in both the third and fourth, but Schaper felt proud when his team refused to quit. He’s come to expect it. With two outs in the bottom of the fifth, Ainsley Shedlock doubled and Hawbaker singled before Shannon cleared the bases with her high-looping three-run homer.
Before the season, Shannon didn’t even think she’d earn a spot on the varsity team. She just assumed she’d play JV and maybe get called up midseason. Now, she’s leading the team in home runs with two — and she earned praise from both Hawbaker and Schaper.
“You know she’s going to be a great player,” Schaper said. “It’s just a matter of when she gets there.”
Added Hawbaker: “She started the batting order out at ninth and then got bumped up to second. I don’t know how — she just knows how to hit the ball at the varsity level.”
Schaper and Co. know State College is only going to reach as far as its underclassmen take it. And, even though the current record doesn’t reflect it, they’re still pleased with their progress — especially considering three of their first six games have come against some of the best teams in the Mid Penn.
In other words, there are still plenty of reasons to smile at State College.
“The potential is there,” Schaper said, grinning. “I like where we’re headed.”