Hard work behind Ridgewood catcher Ashley Spain’s steady improvement on the softball diamond

SHARE Hard work behind Ridgewood catcher Ashley Spain’s steady improvement on the softball diamond

Ashley Spain has grown into a solid, steady varsity catcher over the last 16 months.

The junior-to-be began her high school softball career on Ridgewood’s JV team and when she was first pulled up to varsity during her freshman season she admittedly struggled to block low pitches. She also lacked substantial arm strength, aggression and the nuances necessary for framing pitches.

That’s all changed, however.

“My freshman year and eighth grade, going into freshman year, I couldn’t block the ball at all,” Spain said. “And now, sophomore year, hardly any ball gets by me.”

There was no great secret to Spain’s rapid improvement at blocking pitches. It happened because she worked at it.

Spain spent time in practices with Ridgewood coach Steve Poznansky and Reckless coach Guy Maloberti, who’s one of her club softball coaches, doing drills to help her get better at blocking the ball. For example, Poznansky and Maloberti would throw a leather ball with a soft core at Spain in the dirt during practices, she said. Spain, with all of her gear on, would have to react by sliding to the left, right or dropping straight down and trying to control it.

That, combined with in-game repetition — she played 19 varsity games for Ridgewood as a freshman and more than 50 games for Reckless between her freshman and sophomore high school seasons — made her much more adept at blocking pitches. That not only helped her teams keep their opponents from picking up free bases and free runs, but it instilled both Spain and her pitchers with more confidence in her ability.

“If I get a really bad pitch and it comes in the dirt and I can save it — and I know I couldn’t have saved that a year or two ago — then I kind of seem invincible [to myself],” Spain said.

Poznansky added: “With pitchers, they have the confidence that she’s going to stop a lot of the pitches that are in the dirt or a little bit too high. So they’re more relaxed when they throw curves and riseballs.”

Blocking pitches more effectively is a big reason why Spain’s fielding percentage jumped 57 points from her freshman to sophomore seasons — she finished with a .932 fielding percentage this year — but it’s just one aspect of her growth.

Spain now has the ability to throw runners out at all three bases because of her improved arm strength. Spain, who is right-handed, has become more lethal at cutting down runners by using resistance bands in practice and improving her footwork to make sure her left foot always goes toward where she’s throwing. Improving that facet of her defense allowed her to be more aggressive during her sophomore year, as evidenced by the fact she threw out runners at first and third for the first time in her life.

Beyond that, both Poznansky and Ridgewood junior-to-be Sarah Straughn said Spain has gotten better at framing pitches.

In the last month, Spain has shown she’s not satisfied with the progress she’s made. After hitting .419 for Ridgewood this spring, she’s trying to improve her swing this summer — she’s taking a wider stance to stay more balanced and generate more power — and become better at throwing to all three bases from her knees.

Straughn, a pitcher who’s also on Spain’s Reckless team, said Spain also has become more assertive within the last month when trying to catch pop-ups.

“She’d sometimes take off her mask and go get them, but now she rips it off and she’ll catch it,” Straughn said. “The whole team is … excited that she does it because it’s gotten a lot more outs in tough situations that, if she hadn’t caught that ball, another run might have scored. Her being more aggressive, I’d say, has gotten tremendously better.”

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