Stephanie Marino was a great athlete. But she had very little experience playing the outfield.
That’s when Shannon McGurk worked her magic.
Marino and McGurk are seniors on the Nazareth Academy High School softball team and both are now set in their positions.
McGurk has been an outfielder for as long as she can remember, but Marino came up as a second baseman. But the Pandas needed someone in center field, so she was willing to make the change.
“We had a really good second baseman, and if I wanted to play, I had to play a different position,” said Marino, who lives in Torresdale. “I knew I could do it if I tried, but Shannon was so great about helping me. She taught me a lot.
“There were things I didn’t know, and she was there. She just helped me with whatever I needed. I think her helping me made it a lot easier for me. She was there for anything I needed.”
That pretty much sums up the Pandas outfield this year. It’s a group of players who work hard for each other. And it helps that four seniors see time in the outfield.
Along with Marino and McGurk, seniors Grace Allen and Marie Dignam serve as reserves for Nazareth. The Pandas are a team full of seniors and while they’ve been playing better and better each year, this is their year. This is the year they’ve been preparing for since they arrived four years ago.
And so far, it’s going great.
Nazareth is 9-1 on the season, its lone loss to Villa Maria Academy, which the Pandas will play again May 6.
This group of seniors has enjoyed ups and downs during their career, but this year has been nothing but good times.
“I think it’s helped that we’ve all progressed together and got better together and we have great chemistry,” said Allen, who lives in Huntingdon Valley. “We’re a really close team. We play for each other. That’s big, I think.”
“I think it helps that we have almost the same team we had last year,” said Dignam, who lives in Winchester Park. “The seniors have been together for four years, so we have great chemistry. And we love playing together.”
It also helps that they all know their roles and play it to perfection.
McGurk is the leader of the team. She leads the drills and is quick to help out her teammates, much like she did with Marino.
Marino is a catalyst on both offense and defense. Also a star soccer player who will continue her career next year at Holy Family, Marino causes havoc on the bases and has switched from a right-handed hitter to a lefty to get an advantage at the plate.
Both are starters, but their teammates are just as important.
Dignam is a perfect example of what hard work can produce. She comes off the bench to contribute and when she’s out there, she gives it everything she has. That sometimes leads to success, but always leads to good things because her teammates follow her lead.
Then there’s Allen. If you go to a game, chances are you’ll hear her because anytime the Pandas do something, she’s the first to cheer about it. That enthusiasm usually leads to good things.
“I don’t always play a lot, so I’m like the cheerleader,” said Allen, who along with Dignam is a musician and performed at Carnegie Hall in New York. “I want to help any way I can. Softball is a big part of my life and if I’m not playing, I want to make a difference, so I do it that way.
“Even when things aren’t going well, I look for the smallest thing that gives us a reason to cheer, and I start cheering. When that happens, it usually helps get everyone excited and then good things happen. That’s what I try to do. The JV team helps, too. I love to do it because it picks up the energy.”
The hope now is that energy leads to some banners in a few months.
Nazareth has everything it needs to potentially win a Catholic Academies League championship. It also could be a contender for a District I title and compete for a state championship.
It would mean even more for the outfielders since none are expecting to play college softball. When it comes to winning a championship, the clock runs out at graduation.
“We lost a game, which wasn’t good, but we have a really good team,” said McGurk, a Lexington Park resident who plans on majoring in psychology next year at La Salle University. “This is the year we’ve been waiting for. It’s our last chance.”
“Our goal is the district,” said Allen, who will study music next year at Drexel University. “I think because there’s so many seniors on this team, our goal is to win this year. There are good younger players, but a lot of us have been together for four years and we want to do it here.
“A lot of us won’t play softball next year. We’re using the great education we’re getting at Nazareth in college, but we all love softball, too, so we want to win a championship and we want to do it together.”
It’s almost like they’re one big family.
And Dignam knows what it’s like to play with family members.
Her sister Megan is a starter in the infield. While Maria is a musician, her sister isn’t, but they have the same love of softball that keeps them close. And she couldn’t be happier to share the diamond and the spotlight with her younger sister.
“She’s really good at softball, she started when she was a sophomore,” said Dignam, who next year will attend Susquehanna University where she’ll major in music education and minor in Spanish. “I love music, but she’s not into that, so it’s nice that we have softball. We were close, but I think it makes us closer.
“I’m not looking too far ahead. I just want to play well tomorrow and the next game. I’m not looking ahead. We’re just playing together and having fun.”