By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
HATBORO, PA. — Folks in this quiet, suburban community have marveled over the exploits of its native daughter Julie Wambold since she first picked up a glove and a softball bat that wasn’t much smaller than her as a little girl.
Wambold first learned the game as she watched her older sisters play for their club teams, at Keith Valley Middle School and then at Hatboro-Horsham High School.
Within this competitive environment, it didn’t take Wambold long to carve out her own niche as a player.
She earned a starting spot as a freshman at Hatboro-Horsham and helped the Lady Hatters to their first Pennsylvania 4-A softball championship as a designated player in 2008 and before she was finished, Wambold had added another gold medal as a catcher and shortstop and team captain of the 2011 state champs.
But few could have imagined how Wambold would make her mark on the college softball world as she began her career at Syracuse University this season.
“What a great addition she has been all-around,” said veteran Syracuse coach Leigh Ross. “She has come in and made an immediate impact.”
Playing in the most prestigious college softball tournament this side of the NCAA Division I championship, the Cathedral Classic in Palm Springs, CA. this past weekend, Wambold had a string of games that even an All-American would have envied.
After collecting her first college hit and going 1-for-2 against University of the Pacific in a 5-2 Syracuse loss, Wambold made her first start Friday against Northwestern — a long-time softball powerhouse — and nearly single-handedly cut down the Wildcats.
Her grand slam in the fifth inning broke open a tight game and Wambold’s two-run homer in the seventh helped push the lead to 9-0 as the Orange ultimately defeated Northwestern 9-3.
Wambold’s six RBIs were one off the single-game record, held by Rachel Tilford (March 10, 2007 against Western Carolina) and Morgan Nandin (Feb. 12, 2012 against McNeese State) for Syracuse, but this precocious freshman was just getting started.
On Saturday against UC Davis, Wambold was frustrated like the rest of her teammates as Aggie hurler Justine Vela blanked the Orange and held them to two hits for five innings as UCD built a 3-0 advantage. Syracuse rallied for two runs in the sixth to finally slow Vela down, but still trailed 3-2.
After going 0-for-3 against Vela, Wambold struck in the bottom of the three-run seventh, ripping a Vela pitch over the fence for a walk-off, two-run belt that gave Syracuse a stunning 5-3 victory.
“I’m thinking Julie Wambold needs to be in the lineup everyday,” was Ross’s reaction. “With her offensive ability, we need to find her a position.”
Wambold was primarily a shortstop as a prep player, though she switched to catcher — a position she hadn’t played since she was about 10 — when Hatter teammate Kelsie Koelzer injured her throwing elbow right before the playoffs last season.
At Syracuse, Ross has played Wambold at short, second base, left field and right field to get her bat in the lineup
“We have to give her starts, because we know what kind of player she is going to be, not only for Syracuse and in the Big East, but nationally,” Ross said. “She is such a good athlete.”
Defense proved to be the Orange’s undoing in the final two games of the tournament as Syracuse lost to nationally-ranked teams from Arizona (No. 16 at the time) and UCLA (No. 5).
But it wasn’t the fault of this disciplined, right-handed hitter, with the sweet, compact, yet lethal swing.
Arizona treated the freshman — now batting clean-up — with kid gloves on Saturday night, avoiding the mistakes of Northwestern and UC Davis in some tight spots to grind out a 5-0 victory.
Wambold went 1-for-3 with a walk, but her teammates were unable to come through in the clutch, despite loading the bases several times during the game.
Coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter against UCLA — the most honored team in NCAA softball — Wambold drilled a shot that caromed off a Bruin second basemen Talee Snow and brought home two runs to give Syracuse a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth inning, though it was ruled an error.
That was Wambold’s only contribution on the day, but UCLA rallied against a suddenly porous Syracuse defense to win 6-3.
“The UCLA game, we flat-out choked there,” Ross said. “I’m competitive, we all are. We hate to lose, but we’ve shown what we are capable of doing on two very difficult weekends.”
Despite a 5-5 start, while playing tough fields in the Kajikawa Classic — hosted by defending national champion Arizona State in Tempe, AZ. — and the Cathedral Classic, Ross is confident in her team.
“We can play with any team in the country,” said Ross, whose veteran squad is coming off a school-record 45 win-season in 2011 and is attempting to win its third straight Big East championship. “We’ve prepared and we’re ready.”
Ranked as high as 20th in preseason polls by some softball experts, Syracuse is preparing for the long haul this season.
A big part of that preparation is the presence, not only of a veteran cast of players, but youngsters like Wambold and Carey-Leigh Thomas, a member of Canada’s squad that competed in the Junior World Championship in South Africa last December.
Thomas joined another Canadian national team performer, Jenna Caira, at Syracuse.
Caira, the No. 1 pitcher for the Orange, led Canada to the bronze medal at the World Cup of Softball and the silver medal at the Pan American Games.
Syracuse outfielders and sisters Lisiara and Shirley Daniels played for Puerto Rico in the Pan American Games.
Wambold had a busy summer herself.
After captaining Hatboro-Horsham to a state title with a 4-3 victory over Pennsbury in June at Penn State’s sparkling, new softball complex, Wambold’s Newtown Rock 18 and under Gold club team was the runner-up at the 2011 American Softball Association (ASA) national tournament.
Wambold batted .308 during the national tournament, with six RBIs in nine games.
Originally, it was a friendship between Ross and Newtown coach Rick Waye that steered Wambold to Syracuse.
“I was recruiting some other players on Rick’s team, but I knew as soon as I saw Julie, I wanted her,” Ross said. “When Julie and I started talking the first time, we knew it was a perfect fit.”
Wambold, who has seen two sisters go through the recruiting process and sign with Division I schools, told friends that she fell in love with the Syracuse campus on her official visit.
It also didn’t hurt that one of Wambold’s assistant coaches last season for Hatboro-Horsham High was Ev Anderson, a former player for Ross at Syracuse, who gave Wambold a strong assessment of the Orange program.
But no one was expecting this quick of a transition for the personable performer from the Philadelphia suburbs.
“We throw a lot at the freshmen when they come here,” said Ross. “There is a lot of pressure put on them, but Julie has thrived. She is the kind of kid that can handle that kind of thing.”
Wambold’s strong work ethic and up-beat personality has helped her through the difficulties.
“She is comfortable with everyone,” Ross said. “Not everyone does that. It seems like Julie has been here forever.”
Thus far, Wambold has played in nine of Syracuse’s 10 games, with a .294 batting average, an .824 slugging percentage and a .350 on-base average. She has three home runs and nine RBIs in a sport notorious for its frugal offensive output.
Things won’t get any easier for Syracuse this weekend, as the Orange compete in Orlando, FL. at the Citrus Classic-ESPN Rise Softball Tournament. Syracuse faces No. 24 North Carolina from the Atlantic Coast Conference and No. 17 Auburn from the tough Southeastern Conference on Friday and then meets Virginia, No. 15 Michigan on Saturday and No. 11 Baylor on Sunday.
The game with Michigan will be shown on the ESPN3 Network at 12:15 p.m. on Saturday for those with computer access.
It will give national college softball fans a chance to see the budding talent of Wambold first hand.
“Julie is a kid that wants to compete and wants her team to be successful,” said Ross. “You can’t ask for much more.”