Sophomore softball pitcher carries Raiders’ load

Lebanon High shortstop Olivia Pollard catches a throw after Hanover runner Sophie Wise steals second base during the NHIAA Division II teams' May 20, 2024, game at the Dresden Athletic Fields in Norwich, Vt. Raiders second baseman Savannah Therriault is at right. Lebanon won, 5-0. Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Lebanon High shortstop Olivia Pollard catches a throw after Hanover runner Sophie Wise steals second base during the NHIAA Division II teams' May 20, 2024, game at the Dresden Athletic Fields in Norwich, Vt. Raiders second baseman Savannah Therriault is at right. Lebanon won, 5-0. Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs —Tris Wykes

Lebanon High's Olivia Pollard plays with her sister's dog, Bailey, during the Raiders' NHIAA Division II softball game against Hanobver at the Dresden Athletic Fields. Lebanon won, 5-0. Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Lebanon High's Olivia Pollard plays with her sister's dog, Bailey, during the Raiders' NHIAA Division II softball game against Hanobver at the Dresden Athletic Fields. Lebanon won, 5-0. Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hanover High third baseman Abby Campfield shoots the home plate umpire a dubious look after a called strike during the NHIAA Division II team's 5-0 loss to Lebanon on May 20, 2024, at the Dresden Athletic Fields in Norwich, Vt. Lebanon's Ava Kaercher struck out 16 Bears. Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hanover High third baseman Abby Campfield shoots the home plate umpire a dubious look after a called strike during the NHIAA Division II team's 5-0 loss to Lebanon on May 20, 2024, at the Dresden Athletic Fields in Norwich, Vt. Lebanon's Ava Kaercher struck out 16 Bears. Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. —Tris Wykes

Lebanon High pitcher Ava Kaercher listens to teammates speak after the Raiders' 5-0 defeat of Hanover on May 20, 2024, at the Dresden Athletic Fields in Norwich, Vt. Kaercher struck out 16 Bears despite battling illness. Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Lebanon High pitcher Ava Kaercher listens to teammates speak after the Raiders' 5-0 defeat of Hanover on May 20, 2024, at the Dresden Athletic Fields in Norwich, Vt. Kaercher struck out 16 Bears despite battling illness. Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. —Tris Wykes

Lebanon High third baseman Cathryn Batchelder watches a Jess Lobb pitch go by during her NHIAA Division II team's 5-0 defeat of Hanover on May 20, 2024, at the Dresden Athletic Fields in Norwich, Vt. Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Lebanon High third baseman Cathryn Batchelder watches a Jess Lobb pitch go by during her NHIAA Division II team's 5-0 defeat of Hanover on May 20, 2024, at the Dresden Athletic Fields in Norwich, Vt. Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. —Tris Wykes

Hanover High senior Jess Lobb delivers a pitch against Lebanon during her NHIAA Division II team's 5-0 loss to Lebanon on May 20, 2024, at the Dresden Athletic Fields in Norwich, Vt. Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hanover High senior Jess Lobb delivers a pitch against Lebanon during her NHIAA Division II team's 5-0 loss to Lebanon on May 20, 2024, at the Dresden Athletic Fields in Norwich, Vt. Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Tris Wykes

By TRIS WYKES

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-21-2024 4:53 PM

NORWICH — Lebanon High’s Ava Kaercher was under the weather Monday. The sophomore softball pitcher nonetheless lifted her team over the top, striking out 16 Hanover batters while throwing a two-hitter during the visitors’ 5-0 defeat of their archrival at the Dresden Athletic Fields.

Kaercher’s dominance snapped an eight-game losing streak for the Raiders (4-11), who watched Hanover (7-7) climb the standings ahead of them after the Bears’ two-run victory during the NHIAA Division II teams’ meeting last month. Kaercher issued a single walk while throwing strikes on 76% of her pitches.

“When I hit my spots, I feel very confident,” said Kaercher, who struck out the first nine batters she faced and 10 of the first 13 despite a mild illness. “I’m a little worn down, so I didn’t feel my fastest today. I was a little worried, but once we got those three runs in the first inning, I felt a lot better.”

Three runs out of the gate is a significant cushion for Kaercher, who’s lost six games by that margin or less while pitching 91 of her team’s 97 innings this spring. The righthander has a 1.87 earned-run average and has struck out 222 batters while walking 35. Last year, the club softball participant struck out more than 100 batters as the Raiders finished 3-12.

Lebanon’s obvious problem? No one else can throw strikes and, speaking to its 39 errors and trouble with passed balls, only 19 of the 65 runs it has allowed are earned. That has left Kaercher notably depleted, as she’s confirmed by her declining performance in a school weightlifting class.

“I struggle with getting down on myself, and that doesn’t help the team,” said Kaercher, who lost to ConVal by a run on May 13 despite throwing a four-hitter with 19 strikeouts and no walks. “I am wearing down a lot. My pitches just feel slower, so I really have to hit my spots, but when you’re tired, you miss after a while.”

Lebanon scored three runs during its first at-bat. Kaercher singled, Rya Wykes walked and Cathryn Batchelder and Nitara Murray delivered two-out singles.

The Raiders completed the day’s offense during the fifth inning. Anna Harrington and Savannah Therriault singled and the former, who had advanced to third base on a wild pitch, scored on a Kaercher groundout. Therriault scored on an Olivia Pollard single.

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Hanover pitcher Jess Lobb allowed 10 hits and five runs, all earned, while striking out eight Raiders and walking one. Bears leadoff hitter Sophie Wise had her team’s hits, one on a bunt aided by fielding confusion and the second on a single through the right side.

Second-year Hanover coach Megan Sobel, who’s overseen dramatic improvement in a program that entered this year 13-96-3 during its past seven seasons, said her hitters were continually off-balance.

“We had 10 hits last time we played them but today was tough for us,” said Sobel, who had the Bears attempt a slew of bunts. “After she struck out the first nine batters, I figured we should try something else.”

Sobel, a product of softball-mad Southern California and a former NCAA Division I player, has brought accountability and work ethic to a team that had no seniors last season but features seven this spring. Like Lebanon, Hanover doesn’t have a strong youth softball program, so many players essentially learn the game upon reaching high school.

Lobb, one of those seniors, played club softball last summer and worked with a pitching coach. She added velocity and movement to her offerings and gives the Bears, who were mercy-ruled 12 times during a 2-14 campaign last spring, a real chance at victory in most games.

“Our seniors have changed the culture of the program and made it more serious,” Sobel said. “In the past, we walked a ton of people, which made all the difference. The confidence everyone has in (Lobb) helps our bats and helps our fielders.”

Before Monday, the Bears’ only losses during their previous seven games were to Merrimack Valley and ConVal, which are a combined 19-8. Hanover should make the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, but the lack of a pitcher behind Lobb begs the question of what the program will do once she graduates.

The same problem is on the horizon for Lebanon, which might sneak into the postseason by winning its season finale against Pelham (4-11) on Wednesday. For now, however, Raiders first-year coach Matt Kaercher must lure and develop more talent to support his lionhearted daughter.

“We have to make sure she’s getting proper nutrition, hydration and rest and we’re icing her down right now,” Matt Kaercer said, pointing to his wife, Erica, a 1998 Hartford High graduate and former Hurricanes athlete, as she carried a frozen wrap into the dugout. “We had a plan to work other pitchers in, but we’ve had some injuries and illnesses that have gotten in the way.”

Notes: Ava Kaercher is approaching 1,600 pitches thrown this season. … Lebanon is 18-107 during its last eight seasons. The Raiders snapped a 44-game losing streak in 2021. … Sobel noted that an unsung facet of Hanover’s rise has been the defensive improvement of senior catcher Lily Smith. “Fewer dropped third strikes has led to fewer runners and fewer runs,” the coach said. … Matt Kaercher, a former baseball player at the U.S. Air Force Academy and in the Boston Red Sox minor league system, calls every pitch for the Raiders, shouting a numeric code corresponding to ones on the players’ wristbands. It’s also used for offensive signs, making it sound as if the former U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel is barking out cadence before a football snap. … Lebanon has been rotating pregame candy, and Monday’s choice was Swedish Fish, a chewy, fish-shaped treat that dates back to 1957.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.