By RUSSELL JONES
For the first time in more than three decades, Otter Valley Union High School will have a new coach heading up its softball program.
Actually, it will have two.
Legendary OV softball coach Patti Candon retired at the end of last season after 33 years, racking up 347 wins and four state championships. Two coaches were brought in to replace the Hall-of-Famer, and this year a new era of Otter softball begins under the guidance of Kelly Trayah and Toni Poalino.
Trayah, who also coaches the OV girls’ basketball team, is a former head coach of the Mount Abraham Union High School softball team. He led Mount Abe to the championship game in 2016. Poalino, who was Trayah’s assistant coach during the basketball season, headed Mount St. Joseph’s softball program for a season before taking a teaching position at crosstown rival Rutland High School.
Poalino and Trayah join up once again for this new beginning of softball starting with a home game against Springfield on April 5 at Candon Field, named for the illustrious coach.
The new coaches have a wealth of experience of their own to draw from having both played the game. Poalino’s been playing for 30 years, and both have coached at various levels for years. They are off to a good start as they had a large pool of players to sort through; 30 girls tried out for the team.
“The numbers were really encouraging,” Poalino said. “We’ll have 12 on varsity and 17 on JV, but two of those are injured and when they come back we don’t know where they’ll end up.”
Both have worked with Candon in the past; Trayah coached North/South games with the legend and Poalino worked closely with Candon when Poalino’s daughter Gabriela, a three-sport all-star who graduated last year, was playing at OV.
“My daughter’s junior year, we were worried that Patti was going to retire,” Poalino said. “But at the banquet at the end of the season, Pattie leaned down and whispered in Gabby’s ear, ‘I’ve got one more season left in me for you.’”
The only difficult part of taking over for Candon, according to Trayah, is that he and Poalino use different terminology than she did.
“Me and Toni are both softball people, so we use these terms with each other and instantly know what we’re talking about,” Trayah said. “The girls have picked up on the terminology really fast, though.”
The two have some large shoes to fill. Candon was elected to the Vermont Principals’ Association Hall of Fame, the Castleton University Athletic Hall of Fame and the Northeast Women’s Hall of Fame.
“We don’t really feel like we’re in the shadow of Patti,” Trayah said. “We like to think of it more as building upon the solid foundation that she laid down.”
The foundation that they will look to build upon is largely about getting the basics mastered.
“Patti was big on fundamentals, that was her thing,” Trayah said. “We’re going to take that base and expand, while giving it our own twist.”
Candon still stops by and helps the young girls out, according to the two coaches, and they plan on using any help she wants to give.
“We’re going to have a small ball approach,” Trayah said. “We will be really aggressive on the bases.”
“Every girl is going to be able to lay down a bunt,” Poalino added. “It’s an important tool that we plan on using to our advantage. It helps to keep the opposing pitcher flustered.”
Trayah said that the bunt is an easy way to advance the runners, move the defense in, and get runners in scoring position before bringing them around — and, the coaches said, it’s something they plan on doing a lot of.
On the pitching side, the coaches say they will focus on accuracy and consistency although they may not have speed. The starter will be junior Morgan LaPorte, who has increased her velocity in the offseason and is also throwing more strikes this season.
“With being more accurate and hitting the strike zone with more regularity, she’s built a lot of confidence,” Trayah said.
Freshmen Riley Keith will do some of the heavy lifting on the mound as well.
“She’s very promising, she still has some maturing to do, but she’s a freshman,” Poalino said. “She’s got great velocity, she’s the fastest on the team, and she’s working on her accuracy.”
The team is practicing in the gym, because there is still snow on the field, but the coaches say, “so far, so good.”
“It’s hard to judge indoors, but I’ve been pretty impressed by what I’ve seen so far,” she said. “It’s a really young team, we don’t have any seniors.” “The team has great energy and they’re building great camaraderie,” Trayah added. “We’re excited about the season and we’ll continue to grow as the season goes on.”