Heads held high: Shawnee seniors take pride in 2019 journey

The Renegades lost in the sectional championship, but succeeded in flipping the script on what was supposed to be a “rebuilding” season.

Shawnee players greet senior Madison McGehrin after her two-run home run. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Three months ago, there weren’t any real expectations.

Shawnee High School’s softball team was going to try to fill the void of Kayla Pagano, a four-year varsity player who did the bulk of the pitching during her career, and hope the only two starters returning to their positions on the diamond, shortstop Madison McGehrin and catcher Samantha Volpe, would come together with fellow senior Julia Cooker, to provide leadership to a young team, a group that long-time head coach Paula Escudero labeled as “rebuilding” on the preseason information sheet she sent to local media members.

To envision back in March that her Renegades team would host a South Jersey Group 3 championship game? It wasn’t in their wildest dreams.

“I would have laughed at you,” Escudero said.

But here they were. Shawnee’s season wasn’t so much rebuilding as it was reinvigorating, showing that a little hard work and a lot of heart can pave the way to unexpected success.

When the 2019 South Jersey Group 3 title game came to an end – Kingsway Regional stunned the home team with seven runs in the opening inning en route to a 13-3 victory – it wasn’t the final score that stung as the Renegades gathered for the final time in left field for a post-game meeting, but the reality that the season they had put together and their softball careers were coming to an end.

Shawnee High School seniors Julia Cooker and Madison McGehrin (center) celebrate a strikeout with the rest of the Renegades infielders during the South Jersey Group 4 Championship. Shawnee lost to Kingsway, but was able to appreciate the journey that got them there. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

“We came into this season and we really didn’t know what to expect,” Cooker said. “We had a really young team. But we built up from the bottom. We played with a lot of heart this year and you really just have to cherish the moments you have. It goes by fast.”

“Coming from the beginning of the season,” added McGehrin, “we were a brand new team with a bunch of underclassmen starting. Honestly, we were the underdogs. We weren’t predicted to win. We defied the odds. We ended up becoming a two-seed even though no one thought we would be good enough to go to the playoffs in the beginning. I’m really proud of these girls. They’re my sisters.”

Shawnee, which hadn’t played in a sectional championship game in a half dozen years and hadn’t won one since 1979, began the season with just as many losses as wins in the season’s first two weeks but then hit its stride. The Renegades gelled as a group and won 10 of 12 games in a five-week stretch to move into a spot most people didn’t think they’d be in: a favorite to make an extended playoff run.

Shawnee senior shortstop Madison McGehrin gets into position. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

“I’m proud of them,” Escudero said. “We had home field advantage, the second seed. Who would have thought? We didn’t have to drive to Kingsway. We didn’t have to go to Vineland.”

The Renegades regularly started three freshmen in their infield this spring. But they had five seniors who helped bring the younger players along.

“They have been fantastic role models,” Escudero said. “They set the groundwork for Shawnee softball.”

“It was a big role for us,” Cooker said. “We really wanted to make sure that everybody was together and as one, so we could play as a team. I think that’s a big key, being able to work together and pull through together.”

Although the tears flowed easily when the finality of it all set in at the conclusion of their final game, the senior Renegades could walk off the field for the final time with their heads held high, knowing they set an example and propelled the program forward.

“Everyone got along so well (and) I think that’s part of the season I got emotional, we just got along so well,” Volpe said. “It’s hard to get a group like that with girls, that gets along so well but we did. It meant a lot, this season, to get this far for my senior year. … It’s tough to come back from that (first inning). But we’ll definitely remember this season, it was a really awesome season for all the girls.”

Shawnee senior pitcher Julia Cooker delivers to the plate. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Shawnee’s bench showing some energy during the South Jersey Group 4 championship game. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Shawnee junior center fielder Melissa Bercun throws a ball back toward the infield. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Shawnee junior Melissa Bercun slides into third base after advancing on a wild pitch. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
DSC_0030 Shawnee coach Paula Escudero, in her 20th season coaching the Renegades, meets with her infield during the sectional championship game. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)