Obstacle course

Road to repeat: Despite a recent slide that saw them lose three out of four league games, the Franklin Towne Charter softball team is still the league favorite until somebody proves otherwise. Head coach Jen Daley (back right) is hoping her squad’s bats heat up for next week’s playoffs. ED MORRONE / TIMES PHOTO

A funny thing happens when a program wins its first championship.

While things may seem inherently unchanged at surface level, finding success atop the mountain causes a ripple effect beneath, ultimately causing a transition from upstart underdog to favorites with a target placed squarely on the backs of those involved.

During the transformation from the hunter to the hunted, the Franklin Towne Charter softball team seems to have hit its first obstacle course. After winning the program’s first championship in 2013, Towne has come up limping in the regular season’s final stretches, dropping three of its last four, including Monday’s 7–2 loss at Girls High, the team the Coyotes upended in last year’s title game.

Still though, while the bats have gotten quiet recently, this team isn’t sounding the alarms yet. While they lost four seniors from 2013, including outfielder Larissa Smith, now an assistant to head coach Jen Daley, Towne brought back several key players, including Smith’s younger sister, Laura, who was the winning pitcher in last year’s title game and remains the top pitcher. Senior captains Maddie Cepparulo (catcher) and Valentina Scalici (shortstop) are back, as are holdovers Devinne Corson (left field), Deanna Robinson (second base) and Jailene Miranda (right field).

Also, the schedule has been slightly unbalanced, with Towne playing most of the Public League’s lesser opponents at the season’s outset, only to face a simultaneous onslaught from its biggest contenders. In addition to the Girls High defeat, Towne fell recently to Central and Philadelphia Academy Charter.

With just one game remaining and a week away from the beginning of the postseason, gut-check time has arrived for Daley’s group.

“We’re being out-hit, and that’s a problem,” she said. “I’d much rather them get it out of their systems now. It might be psychological; some of them haven’t hit in a few games, and they’re starting to freak themselves out. They don’t want to give the trophy back, and they know they want to be in that championship game again.”

Last year was Towne’s second championship appearance, and first win. The recent slump has been contagious, but these players showed an acumen for timely hitting during last year’s run, and some picked up where they left off to start the season. Robinson has batted over .500 with two grand slams, and junior third baseman Victoria Stephan has also hit above .500. Cepparulo and Scalici have been run producers in the middle of the order, and Smith has been an effective workhorse on the mound.

Perhaps, Daley surmised, her girls were finally starting to feel the pressure pinch as reigning champs.

“The fact is that we came in this year with everyone wanting to beat us,” she said. “I had coaches tell me at league meetings they were out to get us, so the pressure has been there. Now at the end, we’re getting it a bit more. I’m hoping they can figure it out and get out of it.”

It’s been a season of peaks and valleys for Towne; some expected, others unforeseen. As for the schedule, Daley is hoping this year’s blueprint follows last year’s; that is, the Coyotes lost to Phila. Academy and Girls High in the regular season a year ago only to knock both off in the postseason. At 6–3 in the league, Towne is still in pretty good shape. As Daley pointed out, a №4 seed knocked off №1 last year, and that in the postseason, “It’s one game, so it can go either way.”

One of those unexpected obstacles showed itself in the form of tragedy when Robinson’s mother died of cancer in the season’s third week. She had been diagnosed during the team’s playoff run last year, and the rest of the players on the team have dedicated this season to Robinson’s mom.

“My rules are family first, school second, softball third,” Daley said. “I knew her mom had been in hospice, and I wanted the girls to be prepared to rally around her if her mom passed during the season. Maddie (Cepparulo) and Val (Scalici) made ribbons we wear in our hair. The thing with Deanna is, she’s very tough, so she’ll do whatever she needs to to put on a brave face.”

That toughness was on display against Girls High, when Robinson took a ball off the face near the second base bag. She crumpled to her knees for a few moments, but got back up and stayed in the game. But even those with the strongest internal fortitude need support during the grieving process, and Robinson’s teammates and coaches have been there for her every step of the way.

“My girls, they had the same thought as I did: what if that was my mom?” Daley said. “Now we do whatever we need to in order to help the family. Deanna missed one day, the day of the funeral, same as all my seniors. She wanted to keep playing, so they said, ‘All right, let’s play.’ So we kept moving. We’re lucky to have each other.”

Playing in the wake of such an untimely passing makes softball feel rather small in the grand scheme of things, and this Towne team gets that. At the same time, the sense of pride instilled in them as champs has the team not wanting to relinquish the hardware anytime soon. The goal hasn’t changed, nor has the burning desire to take home another title.

Above all, Daley wants her team to know that feeling pressure is normal. The question is, how will they respond?

“These seniors have been with me since their freshman year,” Daley said. “We lost together in the playoffs before we won. They worked so hard and don’t want to give that up. They want to show that they deserve it. I think some are feeling the pressure more than I am. I’m going to be here. I’m going to have another season. But they’re going to be graduating no matter what, and they’re feeling that. But we aren’t out of it yet.”

No they are not. And a day after completing Philadelphia’s Broad Street Run, Daley was feeling optimistic that her softball team would reach the finish line and get the result it’s looking for.

“I feel like we’re as far down as we can get right now,” she said. “There’s only up to go. I think we’ll be fine. We’re going to be all right.” ••