HomeWorld NewsGunsett, Jackson & Leduc help Marlboro excel with young team
Gunsett, Jackson & Leduc help Marlboro excel with young team
June 9, 2023
Leah Gunsett was mocked by teammates, the group scoffing at her selection and making no attempt to pull punches in expressing their disapproval.
She didn’t have much of a rebuttal, either.
“I don’t know how to rap,” she said in an exasperated tone. “I can’t speak that fast!”
Gunsett requested country music be played during softball practice and it was as if a record scratch could be heard as the eyebrows raised. The collective response was, “What!? You listen to country?”
Luke Bryan is more her speed. The pitcher enjoys slower-paced music, relaxing tunes that are easy to sing along to. It’s a stark departure from the rap and uptempo pop hits that typically comprise their team playlist.
So, it does give a bit of pause when Gunsett strides to the plate at Marlboro High School with Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” blaring from the sound system.
The result of peer pressure? Nah. An offensive hot streak, actually.
“We were listening to music on the bus ride to Monroe-Woodbury and I was like, ‘Ooh, I like that one,’” the junior said of that April 5 road trip. “I was slumping at the plate so I figured I needed a hype song, and that was it.”
Gunsett excelled in the circle that day, pitching a three-hitter and leading Marlboro in a 4-2 victory over the defending Class AA state champions. She also broke out offensively, going 2 for 3 with an RBI.
“That song gets me in my zone,” she said. “I’m rocking with Kendrick.”
In keeping with the culture of softball superstition, it immediately became her walk-up song during home games.
More surprising than the hits playing while Gunsett is en route to the plate — and, perhaps, slightly more relevant — are the hits she is producing while there.
The right-hander had shown glimpses of brilliance as a pitcher before, dazzling with a sharp curveball, so her success now as the No. 1 starter wasn’t unexpected. But her consistency at bat, lashing line drives and being a run-producer in the middle of the order — that’s new. She batted .346 last season, which was solid, but Gunsett now is striking the ball with more authority.
A week ago, she dominated Saugerties, allowing one hit in a complete game. But what excited the home crowd more was her driving in three runs with another multi-hit game.
“I think she’s always had it in her,” teammate Kalista Birkenstock said. “She’s had the talent to be a great hitter and it’s shining through this year.”
‘There’s levels to it…’
It couldn’t have come at a better time as the Iron Dukes are in a quasi-rebuild following their run to the Class B state semifinals last spring. The team graduated a slew of senior stars, including Ava Del Salto, a pitcher who earned Journal Player of the Year honors after her offensive breakthrough last season sparked a prolific lineup.
It’s a little early for a direct comparison, but Gunsett’s ascension is somewhat reminiscent of that. And, for what it’s worth, Del Salto had as her walk-up “DNA,” another single off the same Kendrick Lamar album.
That’s a mere coincidence, but the production isn’t.
“Once we had all the seniors leaving, I knew I had to step up and become a leader,” Gunsett said. “I needed to give people confidence and do whatever I can to help us.”
As she and the rest of this young team have settled in and found their footing, Marlboro slowly is beginning to resemble its 2022 self. At least a little. They won seven of their first nine games and, after a relatively quiet start, they scored at least 10 runs in three straight games.
The Dukes last year, with excellent pitching and a relentless offense, rolled to a second consecutive Section 9 championship and conquered their region to reach the state final four. But, after losing four all-section stalwarts, there was understandable doubt about what this season could be.
“I thought we’d be decent,” catcher Emma Jackson admitted. “I was a little nervous thinking about who we lost and realizing we’d be a young team. But everyone has stepped up.”
Ella Leduc said she figured the team would still be good, with a handful of key players returning and the expected improvement of youngsters. But she didn’t know just how good. A month in and, the senior said, “I’m pleased to say we’re doing better than anyone expected.”
Birkenstock, Leduc and Jackson are proven standouts who were considered the “given” elements of the lineup. But the early success of underclassmen Taylor Castellani, Kaitlyn Gordon and Emily Tarsio, along with juniors Madison Gibney and Kaitlyn Thorne, has buoyed this bunch.
Castellani, a freshman, went 3 for 3 and crushed a homer to left in a rout of New Paltz last Wednesday. Yet another encouraging sign.
Leduc is a slick-fielding third baseman and No. 3 hitter who recently committed to Saint Rose. She is the longest-tenured member of the team and is a vocal leader.
Jackson made a successful move from the outfield to behind the plate. The sophomore hadn’t caught full-time since she was 10 years old, but Emmie Mae Cabrera’s graduation necessitated the switch.
“At first I was worried, hoping not to mess up,” said Jackson, who was the emergency catcher last year. “It took a few weeks and a lot of work to get back into it, but I’m feeling comfortable.”
Easing the transition was the fact that she and Gunsett have a solid rapport, having been scholastic and travel softball teammates for years.
Birkenstock also has done well in her switch from right field to shortstop, replacing Kasey Conn.
‘We like to keep it on a high note…’
“There’s still a lot of talent here,” said Birkenstock, a speedy leadoff hitter. “I didn’t know if we’d be as good as last year, but as the season goes on, I know we’re improving and we’re getting there.”
Gunsett’s development has been a big factor in that. And it can’t all be attributed to an AUX cord.
Plenty of work has gone into improving her swing and approach. Gunsett routinely takes extra batting practice, even on off days. She’ll film herself hitting off a tee, then study the footage to critique the minute mechanical details and adjust accordingly.
The camera has also caught some blooper-ish footage.
“I’ll see myself talking to the bat or giving it a kiss,” Gunsett said with a grin. “I’m talking to it, but also talking to myself, like, ‘Stop thinking so much and just hit the ball like you know how to.’”
There are laughs to be had at that. But an unofficial rule of thumb: It ain’t weird if it’s working.
The groove she has found, Gunsett said, “I hope…” she paused a second. “No, I will keep it going.”
That confidence permeates the team and, with two weeks left in the regular season, there is a belief that Marlboro will again contend for a section title. And, possibly more.
“I think we have a shot to go pretty far,” Leduc said, adding that their experience during last year’s playoff run will benefit them in the pressure games ahead. “Knowing what to expect, how to prepare, and understanding the level of competition and how you have to be at your best at all times, it definitely helps.”
Getting within two victories of a state title last year – essentially having the brass ring within reach – has made them more determined.
“Coming that close and not getting it,” Gunsett said, shaking her head, “you wanna get back there. We want those medals.”
Stephen Haynes: firstname.lastname@example.org; 845-437-4826; Twitter: @StephenHaynes4