Chesapeake head softball coach Don Ellenberger has enjoyed plenty of success during his 17-year tenure at the Anne Arundel County school.
The Cougars won back to back Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association state championships under Ellenberger from 2007-2008, and claimed seven regional MPSSAA titles with Ellenberger at the helm.
But Chesapeake's championship pedigree didn't start when Ellenberger arrived; the program won its first five MPSSAA state titles during a six-season stretch from 1988-1993. That winning tradition is something Ellenberger uses to his advantage at the start of every season.
"After we pick our team, we tell them at the beginning of the year that it's all about May," Ellenberger said. "Just don't lose in May. If you do that, you get a trophy, a cool ring and a banner of your own in the gym that doesn't get taken down. It's motivating for the players, knowing the history. We go look at the banners, talk about what those teams did, then ask what will our players do this season to keep it going."
If this year's Chesapeake team keeps playing like it has so far, it could go down as one of the best teams in the program's history. The Cougars have yet to lose this season, opening their campaign with an 18-game winning streak. They've managed to do so well despite losing some key players from last season's group, which finished 19-3.
Entering this season, Ellenberger knew the team could count on another great year from junior pitcher, Hayley Downin, but he was a little unsure of where the run production and power was going to come from. The youthful Cougars have four sophomores and three freshmen on their 13-player roster.
"I thought we would be good and have a good year, but we're also so young," senior center fielder Abby Muller said. "We didn't expect to get the performances from the freshmen and sophomores that we've gotten. They've played a big part in where we are right now."
The key underclassman contributors have been the freshman duo of shortstop Jerzie Nutile and catcher Tristyn Stewart, both of whom have made an immediate impact at the plate. Nutile is batting .464 with 10 home runs and 30 RBIs, while Stewart, a slap hitter, is batting .594.
Those two have combined with Downin, Muller and senior first baseman Brionna Bowman in forming a monstrous top of the order for the Cougars. Downin has scored 44 times and knocked in 26 runs from the leadoff position, while hitting .635. Bowman is batting .443 in the third spot with 32 RBIs. Muller, Chesapeake's cleanup hitter, is hitting .400 with 21 RBIs.
It hasn't just been the top of the order. As a team, the Cougars are currently batting .441.
"We string hits together really well; it's been contagious throughout the whole team," Downin said. "It's been a fun season so far, winning has been a good reward for our hard work. We're all really competitive, so we don't like to lose."
That explosive attack is nicely complemented by Downin's pitching efforts. She has further established herself as one of the best pitchers in the Baltimore area with a 16-0 mark and a 1.97 ERA. Downin has also struck out 118 batters over 89 innings.
Chesapeake will need Downin to keep pitching well if the group is going to go deeper in the postseason than it has in recent seasons. The Cougars last won a regional title in 2014, and the last two years have seen their playoff runs end in the sectional finals of the MPSSAA 3A East region against archrival Northeast.
That's added motivation for a group that is determined to join the ranks of those special Chesapeake softball teams that came before them.
"In all my years here, we haven't even gotten remotely close to states," Bowman said. "That past history makes us want to drive to reignite that fire the program had at the school when it was regularly making it to state championships. Playing at states is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that nobody on this team has gone through, so making it would be an awesome experience."
Courtesy of Don Ellenberger