It doesn’t take much for a former athlete’s competitive juices to start flowing again. Never mind how long it’s been since the uniform was last buttoned up.
A competitor never loses that fire.
“If you’re a competitor, you’re a competitor all the way through,” said Bob Fox, the recently retired varsity softball coach at Riverhead.
Take for example Catherine Dillingham.
A 2005 Riverhead graduate who played four years of varsity softball for the Blue Waves, Dillingham sprinted around the bases, dove on the dirt and chased down baserunners Saturday morning as if it was a championship game.
“She’s got the most fire,” said Dillingham’s teammate, Melissa Edwards, after an alumni softball game at Stotzky Park. “She can’t mess up, because then she freaks out.”
Dillingham’s energy and Edwards’ bat helped the “gray” team to a 9-8 victory over the “white” team Saturday in an entertaining, well-played game featuring more than a dozen former Blue Waves players from the last decade.
That Dillingham, the gray team’s shortstop, still had the competitive fire came as no surprise to Fox.
“She hated making an error, hated making a mistake,” Fox said of Dillingham’s high school career. “There are lot of girls like that.”
Early in the game Dillingham stood in the batter’s box, her bat raised as she waited for the pitch from Fox – who was the designated pitcher for both teams. Dillingham let the pitch go and the umpire yelled “strike!”
Dillingham fired back a disapproving look.
“First warning!” the umpire countered, later joking that Dillingham was the only player who had to be warned.
In the 8th inning at shortstop, Dillingham snagged a line drive just off the top of the dirt. Seeing that the runner at first was caught between the bases, Dillingham sprinted toward her to apply the tag rather than throw it.
“Have you seen her throws all day?” Edwards quipped.
For nearly all the women, it had been a long time since they last played a softball game.
“That’s the first time a ball’s been hit to me in God knows how long,” said Dillingham, who played softball in college at Mount St. Mary’s.
There was one notable exception: the white team’s star shortstop, Jackie Zilnicki. A three-sport standout at Riverhead, Zilnicki faced a constant besiege of playful ribbing.
“Who invited you Zilnicki!?” one player yelled.
“How is she still good? wondered another.
Yet another player described her as “like a magnet.”
At shortstop, Zilnicki smoothly scooped up nearly every ball hit her way. And at the plate, her powerful lefty bat forced almost the entire team to shift into right field when she stepped into the box.
“She’s fresh out of college, though” Dillingham wryly noted.
“It’s a little unfair,” said Edwards, who was a catcher at Springfield College for four years after graduating from Riverhead in 2001. Edwards, a coach at Pierson High School, launched a two-run home run to left field early in the game and just missed hitting another later in the game.
At Riverhead, Zilnicki was one of the top athletes to come through the school in the last decade. A two-time recipient of the News-Review’s Athlete of the Year award, Zilnicki played basketball and softball at Western Connecticut State University, where she graduated in 2012. As a senior, Zilnicki was honored as the Female Athlete of the Year at Western Connecticut, batting .477 on the softball team with 45 runs batted in.
Every time she stepped to the plate Saturday, everyone stood on their toes expecting Zilnicki to hit a bomb. She just missed a three-run home run in the seventh when she launched a ball off the right-field fence.
Fox said Zilnicki was the type of player who could play any position as a Blue Wave.
“Overall I think Jackie was the best player [I coached],” he said.
Zilnicki had a chance to end the game with one swing in the bottom of the ninth when she came up with the bases loaded and two outs, her team down by two runs. She singled in one run, but that was as close as her team would get.
The alumni game, which is expected to become an annual event, had been something talked about for the past few years, Fox said. After deciding to retire after last season to spend more time with his grandchildren, Fox figured this would be the ideal time to start.
And he wanted it to have a purpose. So this year’s event was also a fundraiser to purchase two automated external defibrillators for the high school softball teams.
Fox said even though most schools have a trainer and AEDs on school grounds, even a slight delay can be the difference between life and death.
“If you get hit in the chest with a ball, you got two minutes,” he said. “We want to try to protect our kids more.”
Fox said the AEDs would be donated to the school on the stipulation that they be used by the softball teams in the spring. In the other seasons, the school can use them at its discretion, he said.
“Mr. Fox has done a lot for us and the program at Riverhead for years,” Edwards said. “To come out and support him, that’s huge I think.”