Northwestern softball players sisters at heart

Of Northwestern High School’s six tight-knit seniors, Maddie Crew is the most maternal — a mama bear protecting her cubs.

“She’s kind of the one who takes care of us all and makes sure we’re on task. Everybody looks up to her,” said left fielder Graysan Braun.

So when Crew, a tender-hearted, wise-beyond-her-years first baseman, lost her mom unexpectedly last year, it was Braun and company who encircled and steadied her, embracing their softball sister like family and refusing to let go.

Their rock-steady reassurance is something Crew will never forget.

“It taught me to really value the people who are in your life because, as you and I both know, they won’t always be there,” the Ohio State University-bound standout said.

“It’s great — the support system they’ve provided for me and other teammates when we’ve had hard times. They’re like family, absolutely. They’re always welcome in my house.”

Bolstered by the ongoing encouragement of teammates Bre Oakes, Kristin Pencil, Brittany Hart, Jensen Kleis and Braun, her biggest fans, Crew has accepted a walk-on tryout invitation from the Buckeyes for the first week of September.

“It will be so weird not having my girls next to me, cheering me on,” said Crew, whose team-high .556 batting average ranks fourth in the Central Buckeye Conference. “My entire life, every single team I’ve ever played on, I’ve played with them. It’s going to be a big change.

“I figure I have nothing to lose by trying out. Either way, I’m at the school I’ve always wanted to go to. It can’t hurt to try. If I’m good enough, I’m good enough. If I’m not, I’m not.”

Known since childhood as the Bomb Squad, the Warrior seniors have shared secrets and dreams, high-fives and heartaches as decade-long fastpitch teammates.

“They’re basically my best friends and the people I spend the most time with,” said Oakes, a heady catcher batting .384 with a team-high 24 RBIs.

“I remember when Maddie first started practicing with us — helping her learn to throw. I look at her now and she’s an amazing player we all look up to. It’s so awesome and crazy to look back and see how much we’ve improved.”

Crew chuckles at the now-distant memory.

“Oh my gosh! I was terrible. I should have been cut,” she said. “There was such a big (talent) gap between the girls and me. I didn’t know how to bunt, couldn’t swing right. At the time, I just wasn’t a softball player. I’d accepted it. It was crazy, as the years went by, how much I ended up closing the gap.”

Since the impressionable age of 8, these competitive elder statesmen have pushed themselves to be the best they can be. Pestering, cajoling and consoling each other like sisters, they’ve weathered breakups, learned to drive, and won a pair of league championships.

“They’re probably the hardest-working group I’ve had go through here,” said Northwestern coach Missy Johnson, a former Northwestern and University of Dayton standout who took over the tradition-rich program in 2001.

“They’re always trying to improve, not only themselves, but everyone around them. Whether it’s taking extra ground balls or an extra round in the (batting) cage, they’re the ones asking to get better. “

Fittingly, the seasoned group has put Northwestern softball back on the map at 20-3 overall and a league-clinching 13-2 in the CBC Mad River Division.

All six are hitting above .350 on a squad averaging .401: Crew (.556), Pencil (.452), Hart (.415), Kleis (.375), Oakes (.384) and Braun (.354).

“My funniest memory of us is that I used to be shorter than Jen. After middle school, I just shot up,” joked the 6-foot Braun, a left fielder, right-side hitter and setter slated to play volleyball at Capital University.

“We’re all really funny and have played for so long with Ohio Danger,” she added. “Kris is the clown. She cracks all the jokes. Brittany’s good at making people laugh, too. Jensen’s a little fireball. She gets mad really easily but we all laugh about it.”

A 4-foot-11 bundle of speed and intensity, the strong-armed Kleis is bound for Division II Findlay, where she’ll play forward in soccer.

“I’m hard on myself. I guess to some extent, I take myself too seriously,” Kleis said. “Most of the time, after I do something wrong, I’m focused on it. They’ll make a crack about it and I’ll be like, ‘OK. I’m moving on.’

“I’m competitive, especially in soccer. People think I’m mean, but I’m just focused. I love when the ball’s hit to me. I just like that pressure. It’s what compels me to make good plays.”

For Pencil, a dependable centerfielder who’ll play at Sinclair, May is a month of tearful ends and wide-eyed beginnings.

“It’s our last go-around. It’s bittersweet for us because we’ve played together for so long. We don’t want it to end,” Pencil said.

“This past year has been one for the books because we’ve all done so well. It’s been an awesome experience and I wouldn’t want to spend it with anyone else. I’m really enjoying it. I hope to go far and I love them.”

Hart, the consensus brains of the group who’ll major in education and mathematics at Wright State, knows they must set emotion aside in the postseason.

“As a team, tournament time only draws us closer,” said Hart, 11-2 with 102 strikeouts and a 1.68 ERA. “Rather than fretting about times we won’t be together, like next year in college, tournament is a time where we can all grab on to each other, bear down and work hard.”

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