At Hampshire Regional, Waters run deep at SS

Lisa McCullough

Theoretically, it is impossible to pronounce someone as being the best at their position without seeing the rest of the field across the state. Unless you plan on viewing every high school softball program in the Commonwealth, you cannot, with due diligence, place such an entitlement on anyone's head.

Whether or not Hampshire Regional's Savannah Waters is the top defensive shortstop in Massachusetts is anyone's guess. Those who have watched her play these last five years can make a strong argument on her behalf. Waters is the true essence of what a shortstop is supposed to be.

She has tremendous lateral range, a strong arm, is not afraid to get dirty and is highly instinctive. It can be said without hesitance, there are maybe just a handful that can match her overall skill set and talent level on the diamond.

Waters has been with the Red Raiders’ varsity since her 8th-grade year. It was obvious coming in that she was replacing another superior shortstop in Bri Eichsteadt, who went on to have a solid career at Westfield State University. Taking over for the popular and gifted Eichsteadt, Waters realized the heir apparent factor might take a little time in adjusting to. But almost immediately, Waters stepped in and flourished.

"When she came in after losing Bri, we didn't blink an eye," said Hampshire head coach Brian McGan, now in his eighth season. "Savannah knows how to play the game and does everything well."

McGan said he started keeping tabs on Waters while she was playing for a predominantly all boys Little League baseball team in town. Right away he noticed something special in her and knew he needed to get her quickly on board.

But Waters, who had played baseball since the first grade, was hesitant at first about playing softball. Entering Hampshire as a seventh grader, Waters knew she could not play on the school's baseball team and therefore, made the jump to softball beginning at the junior varsity level. One year later, she moved up to varsity and the rest is history.

"The transition between boys and girls is a lot different," Waters said. "I loved baseball but knew I wasn't going to play once I came to the high school. At first I didn't know if I even wanted to play softball, but my mother [Lisa McCullough] told me to just try it and see where it goes. Once I did I really started to enjoy it.

“The chemistry we have on this team is amazing. What we have with all of us is the best thing I have ever experienced. Playing varsity as an eighth grader, I knew Bri was leaving and I had some big shoes to fill. I know Coach McGan put his trust in Bri, and the way he valued her, I knew I had a lot to live up to."

Waters, indeed, has lived up to the expectations she placed on herself. In her first season, Waters collected 25 hits and has improved on that number ever since. At present, she has 141 hits and 68 RBI, in addition to contributing 22 career doubles and nine home runs.

Last year, Waters batted .463 with 37 hits. This year, by her own admittance, she is off to slow start at the plate, currently batting .312.

As for her defensive attributes, those never seem to diminish. There have been times in which balls have been laced up the middle labeled for the outfield. But because of Waters' pure instinctiveness, lateral movement and quick reactions, a majority of those would-be hits turn into outs.

"Sometimes I surprise myself," she said. "I think a lot of it comes natural to me. A lot of what I do is based on instinct, especially defensively. The play comes, I do something and then the play is over without really thinking about it.

“My work ethic on defense has always been not let anything get by me. I go into every season with high expectations of myself. I never want to commit an error. I know that won't happen but thinking that way makes me work even harder. I think I am a better defensive player than a hitter. Fielding is something where I can just go out there and do what I have to do whereas I feel hitting is more of a mental thing and I am thinking more about it."

Adds McGan, "There have been some balls that I have seen hit where I immediately think it is going to be a base hit. Then, all of a sudden, Savannah is right there to field it and get the out. She really understands the game. I've never had to teach her that. She already knew the basics of how to field and where to throw the ball."

McGan, who played in the Toronto Blue Jays organization in the early 1980s and was recently named MIAA Coach of the Year, says is mindset on how he approaches Waters is similar in the way he played at Troy (N.Y.) High School and later at Hudson Valley Community College, where he was a JUCO All-American first baseman.

"I told Savannah back when she was an eighth grader that I was going to push her hard," he said. "I told her, 'you're not as good as you think you are.' I honestly believe you can always continue to learn. Where I came from as a player there was either always somebody better than me or someone that I wanted to be better than. So I always pushed myself and I am giving that same philosophy to her."

Waters also plays for McGan's Western Mass. Warriors AAU team during the summer. With the clock winding down on her Red Raiders career, there is no doubt she will be gravely missed once that day arrives.

"She is going to be very hard to replace," said McGan. "There really isn't kid behind her right now that I feel will take those shoes and run with them. Savannah is one of those players where you never had to show her a whole lot. You just needed to fine tune her. It has been a great luxury having her on this team. The love of the game is what drives her. When she does leave it will certainly be a big loss for this program."

Waters was the recipient of several college offers but has decided to attend Westfield State next fall, majoring in Criminal Justice.

But before she can begin looking ahead, she, along with the rest of the Red Raiders, have some unfinished business to take care of first. In two of the last three years, Hampshire has reached the Division 2 state semifinal only to come up short against Grafton both times.

This season there is a collective belief within this club to not be satisfied unless they are the last team standing in the end with a hoisting of the state championship trophy. At present, the Red Raiders appear strong yet again, holding down a record of 8-2. Both of their losses coming against Division 1 programs Minnechaug Regional and Agawam, which are both currently ranked in the ESPNBoston.com Top 25 poll.

Likewise, Hampshire is also ranked No. 13.

"We've come so close a few times and, this year, we basically have the same team in place," Waters said. "We just have to push ourselves a little harder. I certainly feel we have what it takes to win a state title. Now we just need to realize it. A lot of people don't really know much about us because we come from a small town and are viewed as a hick school. Because of that they don't expect much out of us. But once we get out there, teams see that we have a lot of skill and a lot of talent.”

She added, “We've surprised a few teams in the eight years Coach McGan has been here and I think we still have a few more surprises left. The small things are very important to Coach McGan. He's a stickler about that and really pushes us. We know there is still much work to be done but if we keep on the path that we are currently on, and continue to push ourselves, then I think we have what it takes."

Certainly Waters has what it takes. If her teammates want to hop on her back, then she is more than willing to carry them to Worcester State University next month.