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Improved Arundel on verge of sneaking into playoffs


In 1985, most of the players on the Arundel High softball team were just starting to learn the basics of the game in youth leagues in third or fourth grade.

That was the last year that the Wildcats appeared in the playoffs. All-County players Marilyn Andujar and Linda Wallace led the Gambrills school to a 14-4 record under Coach Rod Clark.

In 1992, junior windmiller Traci Koenig and a crew that includes only four seniors have Coach Don Banks' 9-7 contingent on the brink of gaining the fourth and final spot in the Class 4A Region IV playoffs.

But first, they must nudge perennial power Glen Burnie (9-7) out of fourth place. To do that, Arundel must beat both South River (5-11) today at home and Broadneck (2-13) at its home diamond on Monday.

Then, the Gophers must lose one of their remaining games against defending state champion Chesapeake (14-1) or Meade (4-13). The odds of this happening aren't bad, although Glen Burnie recently thrashed third-place Old Mill (13-2).

Arundel is one of the most improved, if not the most improved club in the county this season.

In 1989, Banks' first year, the Cats finished 4-13. In 1990 and 1991, they went 8-10 and 7-10, respectively. Even with those subpar seasons fresh in his mind, Banks was relatively optimistic about his team's chances to make the postseason.

"I knew we had the potential to be pretty good this year, and, so far, it's been a great year," he said. "We've beaten the teams that we knew we could beat, and we beat Glen Burnie, too, which was crucial.

"With a little more luck we could have won three more games. We lost to Northeast twice by one run, and we also lost to [15-2] North County, 1-0. If we could have won those close ones, we'd already be in."

After winning its opener against Southern, Arundel lost consecutive games to Northeast, Severna Park and Chesapeake. Following the mini-skid, the Cats took seven out of the next nine. Before Tuesday's 8-4 win over Queen Anne's, they dropped games to North County and Northeast.

The Wildcats' resurgence didn't seem to take veteran Glen Burnie coach Bob Broccolino by surprise.

"I figured it would be us, Severna Park [7-9, sixth place] and Arundel competing for the [fourth] spot," he said.

"I knew they would be better than last year's team," said Broccolino, whose club was beaten soundly, 15-2, by Arundel on April 13. "They had a lot of quality people coming back."

Koenig, 17, has been the Wildcats' workhorse on the mound, earning every decision. In 108 innings pitched, she has a 1.60 ERA, amassing 115 strikeouts (7.1 per game) with only 24 walks (1.5 per game) and has yielded fewer than five hits per game with 77.

The Crofton resident, who possesses a fastball in the low 50-mph range and a deceptive change-up, has caused opposing hitters problems, while also providing her own squad with plenty of offense.

She's tied for the team lead in batting average (.458) and hits (22) with first baseman Michelle Harrison (second in RBI with 13) and is also first in RBI (16), runs scored (19) and at-bats (54).

"I hope we can win both [games], and I hope that Chesapeake beats Glen Burnie," said Koenig. "I think [having a shot a the playoffs] will pump us up and make us play that much better."

Koenig's battery mate Heather Daffin, a teammate of Koenig's since their days together in Crofton's youth program, is third on the team in hits with 18 and sports a solid batting average of .353 with 10 RBI.

Freshman infielder Amanda Hall is second on the team in runs scored with 13, while seniors Tara Beauchemin (shortstop) and Pam Phipps (third baseman) are tied for fourth in RBI with eight.

First-year assistant coach Paul Yannuzzi, described by Banks as "a big plus" for the program, has helped to play an important role in the Wildcats' success. Yannuzzi, a former coach at Severna Park (76-37 career), brought with him the experience and know-how to help Banks build a contender.

"There definitely is a difference between being the head coach and assistant," he said. "Now I get to work with the kids on more of an individual basis. I don't have to plan the practices, I can concentrate on working on the kids' skills.

"It's been different, but it's still been fun, and Don has been very easy to work with," Yannuzzi said.

The easy-going Banks says he is looking forward to the final games of this season -- and beyond -- and offered advice to his team before yesterday's practice.

"I just told the girls to relax, have fun and let everything take care of itself," he said. "Because next year, with most of my team coming back, we won't be able to sneak up on anyone like we did this year."

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