Something was missing Friday afternoon when the No. 7 North Carroll Panthers took the softball field against the Liberty Lions.
Senior Jen Rongione was not at her accustomed third base position, out of the lineup due to an illness.
It's the rare days like Friday, when she's absent, that notice is taken.
For the past four years, Rongione quietly has been a regular fixture in the Panthers' infield, handling just about everything that's come her way at third.
"Jen's a 'quiet-until-you-get-to-know-her' type. She's low-key on the field, but you never have to worry about her not being focused," said North Carroll second-year coach Rich Harvey. "She's been around for awhile, knows the game and has great instincts. She's not flashy, just gets the job done."
Something that was missing last season in Hampstead was the Panthers' annual trip to the state tournament -- their first no-show since 1988, long before Rongione got there.
"It was really upsetting, especially for the older players," Rongione said. "We're always expecting to go there and used to going there, and our goal this year is to get back and hopefully win states."
It's a feat that hasn't been accomplished at North Carroll since 1991, when the Panthers repeated as state champions, and it's one that seems very realistic with this year's veteran group that is 8-2.
"We're playing very well. We have a really decent pitcher in Kandi Lippy and a major key has been our strong defense," Rongione said. "One thing that got us last year was having a new coach; we weren't all pulled together. This year, coach Harvey knows us a lot better and we know what to expect from him. He also knows what the other teams are like. We're a much closer team and determined to go to states."
Rongione, a co-captain, will be a key. After hitting .396 with 17 runs scored and 10 RBIs last year as a first-team All-County selection, her average has dropped to .258 this season.
"She's had some back problems, but will be essential come playoff time," Harvey said. "She's a good line-drive hitter and has still come up with the clutch hit. She has eight hits with nine runs batted in, so you know she's coming up with key hits and driving in runs when they need to be driven in."
She's making no excuses and is confident she'll get things turned around. "I haven't been doing all that great. I'm pulling my head out a lot and not watching for contact," she said. "At first, I was a little worried about it, but lately I've been hitting and getting the runs in."
The defensive aspect has never been a question since Rongione made the transition to third when she got to North Carroll. She's been playing softball since first grade and has played all of the infield positions.
"[At third], you've got to be quick and know what's going on at all times," she said. "You're always on your toes."