Sports

Karl Lindholm: Kelly, Noelle, and ‘the Bat!’

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE SOFTBALL coach Kelly Bevere, right, and assistant coach Noelle Ruschil pose with The Bat that propelled Panther softball to a 20-10 record last year and the league leading team batting average (.345) and slugging percentage (523) and Noelle to All-American status. Photo by Karl Lindholm

“The Bat” sits prominently on the windowsill in the office of Middlebury College softball coach Kelly Bevere. 

It’s a crummy old bat really, not much good for anything now, worn out, pretty much out of hits, but assuming a deservedly honored spot. 

The Bat is a talisman of sorts, a treasured artifact with magical powers, a material representation of the Middlebury softball team’s highly successful, totally enjoyable, post-pandemic season last year. 

In 2022, the Panthers won 20 games and lost 10, led all of NESCAC in batting with a .345 mark and in on-base percentage at .403, and made it to the semi-finals of the NESCAC tournament before losing to eventual champs Tufts. 

It was the bat used by Noelle Ruschil when she put together a season for the ages. She led the NESCAC in batting with a .484 average (30 points higher than the second-place finisher), hit 15 home runs in 30 games, (the second-place hitter in the league had nine), and broke a number of school records. Her slugging percentage 1.108 was first in the country in Division III.

“She was our leader, so much fun to watch,” according to Coach Bevere. “Nobody could get her out!

Noelle was selected to the All-NESCAC first team at 3rd base, was Player of the Year in the conference, and a NFCA (National Fast Pitch Coaches Association) All-American. At the Senior Awards Ceremony in May, Noelle was selected as the Senior Athlete who “inspires teammates with selflessness, enthusiasm, and team spirit.”

The Bat had a good year!

In many ways, 2022 was Noelle’s only full season. In her first year 2019, she played well but was still recovering from knee surgery (torn ACL) in her senior year of high school (she nonetheless managed to bat .374 as a frosh). 

The next year, 2020, was lost to the pandemic, no games at all, and 2021 was what Kelly called “a fake year”: the team played some games (16 in all), not a full season by any means, and had no fans, no league competition, no tournament (Noelle did bat .326 with two homers).

“2021was really hard,” Kelly said when she, Noelle (now her assistant coach) and I met for lunch at ShireTown Marketplace last week. “We had to be tested for COVID before every game — we were tested five days a week! It was horrible. Winning and losing didn’t matter. I just wanted to keep the team together.

“That’s why last year was so much fun. The seniors had a real season. It was like a honeymoon.”

AS A SENIOR in 2022, Noelle Ruschil hit 15 home runs in 30 games, knocked in 45 runs and led the nation (Division III) in slugging percentage. This season, she is a Panther assistant coach. Her team heads to Florida this Friday for a dozen spring break games.
Photo courtesy of Middlebury College

Here’s the story of The Bat, so integral to the pleasure of the season:

“My own bat broke in preseason and I needed another one,” Noelle related. “I didn’t want to pay for a new one, so I just grabbed a college bat.” She chose one of the more seasoned bats, broken in, one that had “a handle that was kind of beat up,” better for gripping. (Note: composite metal bats do crack and wear out and new ones cost $300-$400).

And with that old bat, the hits just kept on coming!

“We talked about giving it a nickname but decided against it — too much pressure,” Noelle said. She didn’t use the bat in practice and took it home at night. The only other player to use it was teammate Abby Santis who batted next to Noelle in the line-up. Abby was third in the league in hitting (.419) with six homers (also 3rd in NESCAC). 

“It became a fun thing. At Hamilton, I left the bat on the bus and Abby ran all the way back to get it, and the bus was not near the playing field!” In a 10-4 win against Williams, Abby and Noelle hit back-to-back homers with it. They never just handed the bat to one another when they made an out or walked: they always tossed it — that was a required ritual.

Noelle came to Middlebury for a variety of good reasons: “I liked the campus, the look and feel of it. I wanted to be a part of a program where if I got injured and couldn’t play I could still be a part of her program” (that was the fate of her older sister, whose softball career at Dickinson College was cut short by injury).

It might also have been the result of a sandwich. 

“My mom loves Kelly,” Noelle said. “She really wanted me to come here. At a showcase for NESCAC coaches, I was catching and hadn’t been able to get my lunch, so Kelly brought me a sandwich. My mom thought it was great that she would go out of her way like that.” 

An environmental studies/biology major at Middlebury, Noelle is interviewing for teaching and coaching positions at independent schools. She herself attended St. Luke’s School in Connecticut. Of her coaching with Kelly this year, she says, “I love it. It’s great to go from being a player to now being in this role helping players achieve their goals.”

I also asked Kelly at lunch why she is a coach (she has a law degree): “Coaching players like Kate Likhite from Jericho, Vt., is why I love coaching. She hasn’t had an at-bat in three years (she has appeared in seven games as a pinch runner). The captains came up to me in the fall of her first year and said we have to have her on the team, she’s such a great person.

“Now, a senior, she has improved so much she is a viable option in the outfield. She’s super-fast and can bunt!”

The team leaves on Friday for their spring break week in Florida and 12 games there (double-headers!). The Panthers are led by All-NESCAC outfielders Abby Santis (“a five-tool player”) and Jordyn Johnson (“our vocal leader, she brings such energy”), All-NESCAC pitcher Jewell Ashbrook (12-4 last year), and catcher Megan Fox (“calm, a good hitter, very knowledgeable pitch-caller”). 

“We can’t wait to get to the sun,” Kelly says, “and play someone other than ourselves!” 

—————

Karl Lindholm can be contacted at [email protected]. 

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