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Anne Arundel flavor aided in Virginia Wesleyan softball feasting in NCAA Division III tournament

Virginia Wesleyan softball player Maria Weddle. Photo by Alysse Scripter/Virginia Wesleyan Athletics
Virginia Wesleyan softball player Maria Weddle. Photo by Alysse Scripter/Virginia Wesleyan Athletics (Alysse Scripter/Virginia Wesleyan Athletics/Alysse Scripter/Virginia Wesleyan Athletics)

Teammates on the Catonsville Chaos travel softball team and competitors for rival Anne Arundel County schools, Danielle Stewart and Maria Weddle did not intend to commit to the same college program. But after the pair visited Virginia Wesleyan University in Norfolk together in November 2016 and spent a night on campus with some players, an idea struck Stewart.

“I was joking around and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to go to college together and play on the same softball team like we have the past four years?’” recalled Stewart, a senior first baseman who played for Chesapeake-Anne Arundel. “She said, ‘Actually, I was going to say the same exact thing. That would be really cool.’ So it kind of just clicked at the same moment. Once we finished our tour, we both knew that was our home and where we wanted to be.”

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Added Weddle, a senior right fielder who played for Northeast: “Once we realized we had the opportunity to go to the same school and go through college together, it was hard to turn it down. It made going away to college a lot easier knowing that you had a piece of home with you.”

The pair committed to the Marlins the next day, and nearly five years later, their decision is looking prescient. Stewart and Weddle helped Virginia Wesleyan outlast Texas Lutheran, 2-1, in a best-of-three series May 31-June 1 to capture the NCAA Division III title.

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The Marlins sandwiched a 3-2 loss to the Bulldogs (36-6) with wins of 4-2 and 9-1 (the latter in five innings) to add the championship to ones they captured in 2017 and 2018. Coach Brandon Elliott said the second crown in four years for the team’s senior class cemented the legacy of players like Stewart and Weddle.

Virginia Wesleyan softball player Danielle Stewart. Photo by Alysse Scripter/Virginia Wesleyan Athletics
Virginia Wesleyan softball player Danielle Stewart. Photo by Alysse Scripter/Virginia Wesleyan Athletics (Alysse Scripter/Virginia Wesleyan Athletics/Alysse Scripter/Virginia Wesleyan Athletics)

“I think when we come back to this thing 10, 20, 30 years from now, we will talk about it and celebrate it,” he said. “They’re going to talk about the national championship, and I’m sure they’re going to talk about some of the rough rides with COVID this year, and I’m sure they’ve got plenty of stories of how crazy I am and our staff is. But ultimately, I think their legacy and their memories are going to be more grounded in the relationships they have with each other. I think that’s what is pretty cool.”

As symbiotic as their paths to the Marlins were, Weddle and Stewart experienced different beginnings and endings. Weddle was an immediate starter in right field as a freshman on the 2018 squad that won the program’s second NCAA title.

Weddle started six of this season’s first seven games until March 3 when she fractured the metacarpophalangeal joint (or knuckle) that connected her index finger to her right (throwing) hand while attempting a bunt in the first game of a doubleheader against then-No. 5 Salisbury. She underwent surgery two weeks later and was not cleared to return until April 30 — the eve of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament.

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Despite being unable to bend her index finger, Weddle served as a pinch hitter and runner in seven postseason games, getting one hit in seven at-bats, stealing one base and scoring one run.

“I wish I could have done more, and I wish I could have been able to play,” she said. “But I can’t be selfish and say that was about me when all of my teammates were doing so well and I had only 30% mobility in my hand. It was a struggle just to hold the bat and throw to where it just didn’t make sense.”

Elliott said Weddle’s grit was one of her strongest assets on a 46-6-1 team brimming with overachievers.

“She just tried to find ways that she could still contribute,” he said. “Every day, she would try to catch fly balls, and when she was allowed to base-run, she was able to do that. She was able to give us a little spark off the bench late in the season whether it was pinch hitting or coming in to lay down a bunt or pinch running. You talk about a selfless player, and that was Maria. She was the consummate teammate.”

Stewart, on the other hand, was relegated to the bench as a freshman, backing up three-time first-team All-American Cassetty Howerin. She won the starting job as a sophomore, but struggled in the latter half of the season and was pulled in the later innings of games.

After a promising start last spring was waylaid by the coronavirus pandemic, Stewart erupted this past season. She ranked second among the Marlins in hits (59), third in batting average (.410) and fifth in RBIs (38) and runs scored (29).

“I’ve never had to sit through a season and say that the person in front of me is better than I am and they deserve to play,” she said. “But that just made me get better. And I can talk to the new girls coming in and say to them, ‘You can be just like me. You don’t have to start all four years and be an amazing athlete. You can play two or three.’ It just made it a lot more memorable.”

Elliott admitted being concerned that Stewart would develop into a full-time starter and power hitter.

“This year, she hit cleanup for almost the entire year, had so many RBIs, was a huge presence in our lineup,” he said. “And then I would argue to say that she’s one of the best defensive first basemen we’ve ever had. She was a huge part of our success. We don’t get where we’re at without her performance and certainly without her leadership. She’s a kid that proved me wrong as far as the way she performed. I think she outperformed her skill set and outperformed her athleticism, and I think that’s just because of the type of kid and worker that she is.”

Through it all, Weddle and Stewart have had each other. They were roommates this past year and will continue living together as Weddle returns for another year of eligibility provided by the pandemic and Stewart tries to join the police academy in Chesapeake, Virginia. Weddle has already asked Stewart to be one of her bridesmaids when she gets married next June.

“She’s definitely the extra sister,” said Stewart, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s in criminal justice with minors in psychology and sociology and already has a younger sister named Tristyn, a senior at Queen Anne’s County High School in Centreville. “Maria was someone that was there to keep me happy and keep me focused on playing softball and enjoying myself. That is one thing she is very passionate about, just making sure that she is in the moment. So having her there with me and not allowing me to worry about X, Y and Z and saying to me, ‘Look at where you are. Look at how far you’ve come,’ I couldn’t imagine not going to school with her for the past four years.”

Weddle, who is on pace to graduate with a bachelor’s in elementary education and a minor in mathematics, said their shared experience has been enhanced by reveling in the joy of collecting two national championships.

“It’s indescribable,” she said. “We played travel ball together and won some tournaments, but this is more. This just means more. … It’s really rewarding at the end seeing all of the hard work we put in end in results.”

Stewart, who hit a two-run home run in the final at-bat of her career in a 9-1 rout of Texas Lutheran on June 1, said she is still “a little star-struck” by the knowledge that she played a direct role in Virginia Wesleyan’s latest acquisition.

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“There are times also when it hasn’t really hit me yet that we won the whole thing,” she said. “So it’s a mix of good emotions and sad emotions and also great emotions that I was able to go out and finish my college career winning a national title.”

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Weddle echoed that sentiment. “It’s definitely unreal,” she said. “You go in being a college athlete, and not many people get to say, ‘I’m a national champion,’ and me and Dani and our teammates are lucky enough to say we’ve won it two times.”

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