PITTSFIELD — As the Berkshire Force 16U squad moves through New England Regionals in Charlestown, New Hampshire, and prepares for the Babe Ruth Softball World Series in Jensen Beach, Florida, they will do so while led by a triumvirate of talented stars in the pitching game.
Ashley Keegan is a three-year veteran of the 16U team with a cannon on her right shoulder, while Giuliana Pierce is a newcomer with a plethora of off-speed options in her repertoire. Both, however, would seem to have a lot less direction without catcher Hayley Tobin managing things from behind the plate.
These three form the backbone of what the Berkshire Force 16U program has become, and what it has become as a perennial force in both the New England area and the country at the World Series. Both Keegan and Tobin were key members of the 16U team that hosted Babe Ruth’s main event at the Doyle Complex in Pittsfield two summers ago. Now, for a third time, they head back to the World Series in a new leadership role under head coach Mark Pierson.
“Tremendous. [Keegan and Pierce] are different, obviously in that one throws off-speed and Ashley brings some heat,” said Pierson, in his second season at the 16U helm. “So far this summer we had like nine games before we walked a girl. If you do that, you’re in great shape.”
Keegan has been a leader since stepping onto the Taconic High School field two seasons ago, and, along with Force teammate Kailey Bell led the Braves back to a playoff appearance this spring. She was the team’s No. 3 pitcher when the Force hosted in 2014, but now serves as the leader both in and out of the circle. She struck out 166 batters in 119 innings as a Braves junior and brings that kind of power to the summer circuit with the Force.
“[Pierce] is more of a drop-ball pitcher, throwing to contact and getting a lot of ground ball outs. She doesn’t throw particularly hard, but her pitches move a lot, so she is hard to hit,” said Tobin. “Ashley is kind of the opposite. She throws gas. A lot of her pitches have a ton of movement and she has so many pitches.”
Pierce was a relative newcomer to the Pittsfield varsity squad this spring, primarily serving behind Emily Koldys in the circle and seeing a lot of time at first base. However, even as a sophomore, she struck out nearly a batter an inning in 39.1 frames, which included a five-inning perfect game against Lenox and complete game shutouts over Hoosac Valley, Drury and Mt. Greylock.
“I think we go pretty well together. I definitely have a hard time hitting off her, and I like to think I give her a little bit of a fight,” said Pierce of Keegan. “She has the speed and has some really nice pitches that move around a lot, while I throw more junk. I think we go together pretty well and give hitters different problems.”
“She definitely has a lot more spin on her ball, whereas I tend to throw faster. It is good to mix it up, like when I start a game and she can go in after, or vis versa,” added Keegan of her teammate. “It just throws them off completely because we have two different styles.”
Despite facing each other throughout house league and high school competition, the duo have paired up and become a game planning nightmare for opposing batters. Whether they are splitting up seven-inning games, (if the Force batting order allows games to go that long) or saving each other’s arms by trading off games during grueling summer doubleheaders, Keegan and Pierce are the driving force behind the Force.
What makes this duo really click, however, and pushes it into a true trio, is what lies 43 feet from Pierson’s two arms.
Hayley Tobin just completed her second high school season overall, as well as her second season batting over .500. So, to say her most valuable asset to the Force happens when Berkshire is in the field should carry extra weight.
Which is exactly what Tobin is shouldering this summer. The rising PHS junior is calling pitches and games for the Force, a duty usually reserved for coaches. However, Tobin’s softball IQ and experience catching both Keegan and Pierce have allowed her to take on the duty of in-game manager.
“She dictates the game. We let her call the pitches. Normally at this level, the coaches will do that. But I trust her enough to call the game, and she does a great job,” said Pierson. “She’s been tremendous not just at blocking balls and throwing and being a leader, but calling pitches, which for a young girl is a great deal.”
While Tobin does realize the added pressures that come with this, nothing has slipped in the other parts of her game. She is also drawing on the experiences of playing two seasons of varsity ball with PHS Head Coach Greg Marchbanks.
“It is different because I’m calling the games now,” said Tobin. “I’m in charge of it, but I build off a lot of Coach Marchbanks and his style and most of the time that is working. I’ve played with [Keegan and Pierce] for a while now, so we know what works.”
Led by Keegan, Pierce and Tobin, as well as a batting order that blended power and speed beautifully, the Force trampled its way through regional competition and now have a spot reserved in Jensen Beach starting July 26.