Team meeting helps Reporter/Montgomery Coach of Year Sonneborn save St. Basil’s season

It wasn’t big or bold, but the sign that hung above the St. Basil Academy softball bench was the last thing players saw before they took the field.

Sacrifice/Regret: your choice.

With a good team in place, plus a couple of freshmen ready to jump in, the Panthers looked like they had a chance to chase a Catholic Academies title, a District 1 Class AA title and win an elusive PIAA game. Yet, through the first half of the season and then some, things weren’t materializing that way.

There were flashes of it, like an eight inning 1-0 win over Villa Maria, but also poor moments, like a lopsided loss in the very next game. Finally, roughly three-fourths through the season, the Panthers met.

Coach Steve Sonneborn, his assistants and his players all felt they needed to talk some things out. The meeting would change their season.

Sonneborn learned a little about himself as well and the Panthers responded, winning the district title and advancing all the way to the state semifinals, the first state playoff wins in history. For his role in taking St. Basil to new heights, Sonneborn was selected as the Reporter/Mongtomery Media Softball Coach of the Year.

“With everybody returning, if we could stay healthy, I thought we could do well in the Catholic Academies,’ Sonneborn said. “That was our goal to start with, to win the league. In the beginning of the year, I really believed those goal were achievable. As the season went on, we went on some ups and downs and it really confused me as to what kind of team we had.’

Theoretically, St. Basil was well-positioned for a good season. Senior pitcher Nichole Eberhard was a workhorse, solid and a gamer while senior outfielder Myranda Gormley was a key offensive piece and the team’s heart. Junior second baseman Abby Carter is an outstanding defender and an offensive machine, hitting leadoff, stealing bases and creating runs.

In March, the team took a trip to Flordia, and though Eberhard couldn’t go, it brought the group together. The players became close, the young players and selected JV athletes got vital playing time and it looked like St. Basil would be a factor.

But when things weren’t going the way the players or coaches had hoped, they mutually decided to come together.

“Three-quarters through the season, we called a team meeting, they were frustrated with me and I was frustrated with them because I didn’t think we were playing up to our capability,’ Sonneborn said. “Once we had that meeting, I think we aired out a lot of stuff. A couple of things were said that opened up some eyes.’

Sonneborn is a stickler for fundamental softball and he felt his girls were making too many fundamental errors. He was surprised to hear some of the players were afraid to make mistakes because they were upsetting him.

The veteran coach ends each season by meeting each of his players and driving home it’s “our team, not my team.’ When he heard and realized his players thought he was putting too much pressure on them, Sonneborn knew things had to change right there. It was time to reevaluate himself.

All year up to that point, one of his assistants always told the girls to just go out and have fun. Sonneborn came to the conclusion his players knew they were talented and knew what they had to do, so he bought in and also started encouraging them to go out and just have fun.

After that, the Panthers got rolling.

“We just started winning and it was really contagious,’ Sonneborn said. “The kids were all buying and at the end of the year, Nichole really stepped up. That stretch run that she pitched for us was the best she’s pitched in her four-year career. Hearing what the girls had to say and listening to my other coach then sitting back and saying you might need to change a little bit seemed to work.’

Sonneborn, who will enter his 17th season next year, even learned a valuable lesson.

“We weren’t what I expected, I called the meeting and I felt they were all on board with it,’ Sonneborn said. “The kids were very blunt and very honest. I’ve got kids like Myranda, who’s mature beyond her age saying what she thought was happening and a couple of the other girls stepping up and saying some stuff. It was really good they were all willing to speak their minds.’

After the meeting, the dynamic changed. The Panthers played like weights had been lifted from their shoulders, they were loose and the coaches lightened up. While they kept a focus on winning, the dugout became more fun, with some jokes going around in games.

Sonneborn described his sign as a choice. A player could dive for a ball or sprint to extend a hit, giving something to help the team or not do it and regret it for as long as they kept playing. In his moment to choose, Sonneborn opted to sacrifice and the result was a special run to the state semis.

If he had decided to stay rigid, or not even call the meeting, he may well have lost his team and regretted not seeing where their talent could have gone. Sonneborn said he also gained respect for any team that’s ever won or reached a state title game, seeing just how difficult it is to climb to that point.

Next year’s group returns mostly intact sans Gormley and Eberhard, and the goals will be the same. But this time, the coach will be one year and quite a few lessons wiser.

As for that little yellow and blue sign, the one that hung with the team’ monument of ribbons, it even found its way into valedictorian Myranda Gormley’s commencement speech.

“I’ve been around this game for a long time and when you stop learning, then you’ve got a problem,’ Sonneborn said. “If you think you know it all, you’re going to have problems. You have to have an open mind and listen to the people that are around you that are trying to help you. That’s what we did this year.”

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