Polytech softball happy to be back in state tournament

WOODSIDE — Struggling last year was one thing.

The Polytech High softball team was only one season removed from winning its first state title.

Still, the Panthers were young and had a new coaching staff last spring. So it wasn’t a complete surprise when they finished just 5-13.

But when Polytech started off only 1-4 this season — with three mercy-rule losses — it looked like the Panthers might be headed down the same bumpy road.

Second-year head coach Kristy Vodvarka and her staff decided it was time for a team meeting.

“Our coaches sat us down and said, ‘What do you guys want to do?’” recalled junior shortstop Hayley DiCarlantonio. “That’s when we realized, we needed to pick it up. We needed to pull together — and we did.”

The change in attitude seemed to change everything.

Since that meeting, the Panthers have reeled off 10 victories in their last 13 games.

On Wednesday, Polytech’s players got their reward when they earned a berth in the DIAA softball state tournament. Seeded 15th, the Panthers (11-7) will play at No. 2 Smyrna (17-1) on Saturday at 11 a.m. in the tourney’s first round.

It’s the ninth time in the last 10 seasons that Polytech has made the tourney.

Vodvarka, a 2000 Poytech grad, said it’s been fun to watch the turnaround.

“We’ve been preaching to them about intensity and focus the whole season,” said Vodvarka, who was an assistant coach with the program for seven years before becoming head coach. “Being young, it’s really hard to bring your own intensity and focus.

“At that meeting, it was kind of like, ‘OK, we’re going to force you to be intense and focused — at practice,’” she said with a smile. “We, as a coaching staff, came together and thought, let’s make our practices a little more intense and hopefully that translates into the game — and it has.

“I think their confidence has increased. They’re young. It’s hard going up against 18-year-olds.”

All seven of Polytech’s losses have come against squads that made the 16-team state tourney field. And the Panthers haven’t been run-ruled since their 1-4 start.

Their last three losses have come by six runs to No. 6 Sussex Tech, by two runs to No. 5 Newark Charter and by three runs (in nine innings) to No. 11 Wilmington Charter.

Polytech goes into the tournament on a four-game winning streak — including victories over No. 14 Padua and No. 8 Sussex Central. The Panthers have only one senior on the roster in Olivia Boone.

“It’s a pretty big deal (to be in the state tournament),” said junior pitcher Kaite Burawski. “We all want to win. But I think we’ve worked really hard to make it this far.

“Being a lower seed, we feel that people don’t really expect much of us. We feel like we have to actually prove something.”

“We know, going out there, we’re the underdogs,” said DiCarlantonio. “Everyone’s expecting us to lose. It makes us want to win more. We want to show everybody that we can play.”

“It’s very exciting for the girls and it definitely has shown them that their hard work is paying off,” said Vodvarka. “That’s probably the greatest thing that they’ve learned this year — hard work really does about to something.”

Smyrna was one of the teams that handled the Panthers early in the season, blanking the Panthers, 10-0, on March 29.

DiCarlantonio, who lives in Smyrna, knows it won’t be easy getting past the Eagles. But Polytech’s players would also like to show how much they’ve improved.

“We know they’re good,” DiCarlantonio said about Smyrna. “They’ve always been good. But we know we can hang with them.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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