WINSTED — Let’s face it. COVID-19’s havoc among high school sports and athletes is worse for teams and individuals with the highest expectations dashed by a sea of spiked microscopic balls.
As a result, the honor of a college signing is more momentous than ever, along with a story of the determination an athlete shows to get themselves to the next level.
Tuesday, Northwestern High School’s Ava Blanchard committed to play softball at Division III Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.
A slugging first baseman and backup pitcher since her freshman year, last year’s canceled spring season was to have been her debut as the starting pitcher for a Highlanders team that lost just one Berkshire League game in her first two years.
“Junior year is a big year for getting noticed,” she said Tuesday. “I was looking forward to being a starting pitcher.”
Nevertheless, like many other college signees around the state, she refused to let COVID-19 stop her chances to go further.
Blanchard signed on for private pitching lessons from Jen Hapanowicz of USA Elite Training in Cheshire as a sophomore, then continued to play last summer for the Terryville-based Connecticut Titans travel team, where she’d found a home in the eighth grade.
Last fall, she switched to the Connecticut Sea Hawks, who train and play in the Trumbull area, “because they have greater exposure.”
Coaches from both teams helped her contact area college coaches.
“There was a lot of social media and emails going out,” Blanchard said. “I made a YouTube channel and a Twitter account and sent out a lot of videos.”
In the end, six Division III coaches showed interest. Golden Bears Coach Amanda Novak won out because “she seemed most like (Northwestern Coach Stacey Zematis) — positive and easy to talk with.”
Positivity is a trait Blanchard treasures as a hitter/pitcher and teammate — and echoes again in her handling of the pandemic’s obstacles.
“In a late-season game when I was a freshman DH, I came up to bat with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning,” Blanchard recalls. “Coach Zematis came up to me and said, ‘There’s no pressure; everyone knows you’re a freshman. Just do the best you can.’ I hit a walk-off double.
“As a pitcher, I feel like I’m ahead because I know what I’m throwing. There’s no better feeling that striking someone out.
“But if I’m in a tough situation, I say to myself, ‘You have to pitch here’ and a lot of times I’ll hear my father’s voice (Keith Blanchard, a Juvenile Protection Officer and unofficial pitching coach).
“If it doesn’t work out, I’ll say, ‘Okay, this happened, but think about it later. It’s the middle of the game. Keep moving forward.’”
It’s the sort of speech that’s helped Blanchard and hundreds of other high school seniors move past a lost season toward the prospect of a full high school spring followed by endless possibilities at a college for which they’ve fought even harder for a spot than their predecessors.