2017 Softball Coach of the Year: Ritter pushes Skyline to record season
FRONT ROYAL – John Ritter knew the potential was there for Skyline as his second season as the school’s varsity softball coach approached in 2017.
His head coaching debut with the Hawks in 2016 was a successful one as Skyline came within a win of reaching the program’s first state tournament, and with the
bulk of its starters returning a year later, Skyline was set up nicely to make another deep playoff run.
Ritter made sure his players were prepared to push for more as soon as they stepped foot on the practice field this past season.
“I was tough on them at the beginning of the year, you know,” Ritter said last week. “I told them when they came in, I was like hey, you wanna go back to where you were last year or do you wanna get further? Their thing was they wanted to get further. So that extra work that they put in paid off. And when you’re gonna do that, that’s the tell-tale to everything because you’ve really gotta put it in to get there to do it. And they did.”
Skyline’s 2017 season ended just the way it did the previous year, at the hands of Warhill – now the Virginia High School League Group 3A two-time defending state champion – in the Region 3A East tournament semifinal round. But the Hawks managed to check every other goal off their list.
Skyline’s preseason aspirations included winning 20 games, and the Hawks hit that number on the nose to become the first team in the program’s 10-year history to do so. The Hawks also wanted to earn the top seed in the Conference 28 tournament in order enjoy the luxury of playing at home, and to win the tournament for the first time. Check and check.
As a bonus, the Hawks got to host both of their regional tournament games.
“I said when you set your goals, set them as a team – where you wanna go, what you wanna do – and do it as a team,” said Ritter, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2017 Softball Coach of the Year. “You’re gonna have individual goals but don’t let your individual goals get in front of your team goals.”
For the second season in a row Skyline overcame the wealth of youth that has made up the bulk of the Hawks’ roster. With center fielder Jessica Sims being the team’s lone senior in 2017, Ritter filled the rest of his starting lineup with three juniors, four sophomores and a freshman, nearly all of whom had gotten valuable varsity playing time in 2016.
Skyline ended the season with a VHSL Group 3A second team all-state selection in junior pitcher Tamara Grayson, two all-region second team picks in Sims (team-high .402 batting average, 24 RBIs) and freshman shortstop Emma Benson, and seven total all-conference honorees.
Defense, Ritter said, was the Hawks’ greatest asset this past spring – Skyline committed no more than 10 errors in 20 regular season games, he said, and finished with around 15 as a team – although Skyline’s offense began to pick up as the season progressed. The Hawks ended up outscoring opponents 195-59 for the season and scored 21 or more runs three different times.
“As a team we didn’t hit as well this year as we did last year,” Ritter said, “but what was impressive was up until 10 games into the season we never had a home run and we finished up with 20 as a team.”
Skyline also was clutch in close games, as the Hawks won four extra-inning contests in the regular season and another in a walk-off against Riverside in the Conference 28 tournament championship game on May 26. Skyline preceded that victory with a wild walk-off win over William Monroe in the conference semifinals.
“That’s the biggest change I’ve seen from last year. We were in a couple of tight games and didn’t really pull them out but this year was a different group,” said Ritter, the Conference 28 Coach of the Year.
Ritter, who said he’s excited to see what next season holds as he combines a large contingent of returnees with pieces from a junior varsity squad that went 17-1 this past season, praised the impact his coaching staff had on the Hawks’ most productive season to date.
“Your coaching staff is a big part of this program too because you’ve gotta be surrounded with people you trust,” said Ritter, who made his coaching rounds in the travel ball circuit prior to joining Skyline as an assistant coach several years ago, “and I’ve been fortunate enough to have that. It makes my job easier.”