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Diamonds are a girls best friend

Coach Jody Brefere-Ewen and Her Lady Redbirds Softball Team Drive It Home

By Visko Hatfield

The great sportswriter Red Smith famously disputed the idea that there is such a thing as a dull baseball game. Sixteen-year-old Erica Cadavid of Cos Cob feels the same about that other diamond sport, softball.

“There’s always so much to work on,” says Erica, this summer a veteran member of Greenwich’s own softball travel team, the Lady Redbirds.

Redbird second-baseman Alyssa Lodato, fourteen, agrees. “No two games are ever the same,” she says. “There’s always a new experience. We’re always learning something different.”

What the Lady Redbirds learned last summer was that Greenwich girls can play softball with the best travel teams in the Fairfield County Fastpitch Softball League (FCFSL). Last year’s inaugural-season squad of fifteen players amassed a perfect 10-0 regular-season record. This time around, for season two, interest has grown to the point where there are three Lady Redbird teams, one for girls fourteen-and-under, another for those sixteen-and-under, and the third for eighteen-and-under players. Each play in their own separate league against travel teams from other towns.

Launching a Greenwich softball travel team was the brainchild of Jody Brefere-Ewen and Frank DeNicola, two town residents who, initially unaware of one another, worked for years to establish a town recreational league for girls’ softball. After the town’s rec league was up and running in 2000, they decided a summer-season travel team was the next logical step. The town league has slow-pitch softball; DeNicola and Brefere-Ewen wanted girls to have on offer during the summer the same kind of fast-pitch game they play in high school varsity programs.

“Our goal is not necessarily to have the winningest team; it’s to have the best softball we can in Greenwich,” says DeNicola, a private investigator in his other life.

Brefere-Ewen, an event planner during the workweek, once played softball for Greenwich High School and was team captain on Syracuse University’s varsity team in the late 1990s. She recalls with bemusement last season’s struggle to be taken seriously.

“When I started the travel team, I went to Greenwich Time to get coverage,” she says. “The editor there told me: ‘Win a couple of games, then we’ll come.’ We won the whole thing.”

Of last year’s fifteen players, thirteen have returned to play this summer. Over the course of six weeks, from mid-June to August 1, each Lady Redbird team plays around twenty-six games, ten regular-season games, as well as a series of weekend round-robin tournaments outside of the league. One weekend may have the Dance with the Devils in Deep River, Connecticut, the next the Blazer Bash in Ringwood, New Jersey. Nothing tests a softball player’s enthusiasm more than driving two hours for a chance to play a tripleheader under a sweltering sky.

That’s especially true if you are Cos Cob’s Amanda Novak, eighteen, and a Redbird catcher and captain. “It feels horrible under all that equipment sometimes, like a hundred degrees,” she says. But she loves the road trips all the same, for the camaraderie and the chance to compete against girls as excited as she is about playing softball. “They’re like mini vacations, vacations in the softball sense,” she says.

Other Redbirds agree.

“It’s awesome when we go away,” says fifteen-year-old center fielder Veronica Gabriel of Byram. “We know each other better on the field and off the field because of it.”

Like most girls of high-school age, there’s a buzz of anxious self-consciousness around topics like boys, beachwear and braces. Ask them about softball, though, and a collective self-assurance washes over them.

“It was the funnest summer I had since I don’t know,” says Julia Brefere, fourteen, Jody’s cousin and a pitcher/catcher for the Redbirds who lives in Harrison, New York. (Because the team is privately run, it can take in out-of-towners.) “I gained a lot of confidence. I found my true strength. I know what I can accomplish.”

The players have their own set of rituals. Erica and Veronica demonstrate their special between-inning handshake, a complicated amalgam of fist pumping, chest thumping and blowing a kiss into the air with two fingers. Trying to imitate this Girls ’N Da Hood routine sends the happy pair into a fit of giggles.

Erica and Veronica also make a point of tapping second base with their feet when taking the field. Other players have their lucky socks. Julia recalls her lucky helmet. “I’m so superstitious, I tug on it before every pitch,” she says. “Now it’s broken because the mask is all messed up from tugging.”

A sigh. “I got all my hits with that helmet.”

“I yell out the situation before every batter,” Amanda pipes in.

Aren’t catchers supposed to do that?

“Yeah, but I’m really loud!”

Back when she helped start the rec league, Coach Jody remembers parents fretting about injuries, in particular suggesting the league do away with sliding. That didn’t fly with the no-nonsense Brefere-Ewen, who feels girls deserve a game every bit as demanding as the boys’.

As travel teams pull only the best players, there’s less risk of injury than in the rec leagues, she notes. Everyone on the Redbirds knows how to slide, for example. Not that players don’t get banged up. Erica once got hit in the ankle with a pitched ball, aggravating an already sore area.

The hairiest incident happened to Coach Jody herself.

“I was coaching at third base. This is the middle of the season, and I was pregnant. This line drive hit my hand and broke my middle finger. After that, I coached from behind the batting cage.”

There are chippy incidents with other teams. Notice is paid of a leather-lunged bunch of Long Island girls who gave the Lady Redbirds an aural bruising last season. But mostly relations between teams are amicable, even friendly. Sometimes at tournaments, between games, the Lady Redbirds linger by the field to cheer on a team they just played.

“This is hard-nosed softball, no holds barred,” says DeNicola. “But at the end of the game, the teams shake hands.”

Often family and friends come along on road trips, and home games draw good crowds. “There are a lot of Italians on our team, so that means there’s a lot of family,” Coach Jody says. “We literally camp out on the field.”

John Novak has two reasons to show up for games. Not only is Amanda his daughter, but the Lady Redbirds are sponsored by the Greenwich Firefighters Association, of which John, a fire department lieutenant, is president. (Players pay $250 to cover various fees, but expenses like the cost of uniforms are allayed by the firefighters’ union and other sponsors like the Greenwich Old Timers Athletic Association and the NerJan Development Company in Stamford.)

“It was fabulous,” John recalls of last year. “As the weeks went by, the crowds got bigger. People who weren’t even involved with the team came out to see them play, just from reading about it in the paper.”

Sandy Novak sees “a huge difference” in her daughter Amanda’s softball since the Lady Redbirds started.

“She plays almost year-round now and stays in condition,” Sandy says. “She has a great experience being with the other kids. It tests her ability more. And it makes her best come out more. When she’s a better player, she’s so much happier.”

Next fall Amanda will be entering Springfield College in Massachusetts, which not coincidentally has an impressive softball team. Her teammates will miss her. “She pumps you up,” says Veronica.

Meanwhile, the Greenwich Lady Redbirds enjoy the chance to play other teams, meet other girls who love softball and challenge some stereotypes, not just the one about girls and sports.

“A lot of people in the league thought of this Greenwich stereotype, of us being a lot of prisses,” says Coach Jody. “But we’re definitely not that. Our point is that we can turn it on and turn it off.”

This year, the Redbirds aim to turn it on even more, hosting a first-time home tournament in July and further sharpening already-honed skills. The pride is palpable.

“It’s about overcoming odds,” Erica concludes. “Last year, no one expected us to do what we did. We shoved it back in everyone’s faces.”