She's as solid as a ... Ripken

Softball: Havre de Grace's catcher has impeccable athletic genes, but her modesty is on a level with her talent.

High Schools

April 13, 2003|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Two future major league careers started in the same Aberdeen backyard in which Austyn Ripken was given an introduction to the game.

Despite being born into a famous baseball family and having a bat in her hand before she could walk, Austyn had reservations about playing softball. But that reluctance didn't survive summer vacations at the house of her grandparents, Cal Sr. and Vi Ripken.

"I just used to go out in the yard all the time and play with my grandfather," said Austyn, the daughter of Fred and Tina Ripken. Fred is the third of Cal Sr. and Vi's four children. "I was real nervous at first, but started to love it. My grandfather was the first person I ever listened to about sports."

When it came time to pick a position, Austyn's choice was a no-brainer. Cal Sr. was a catcher in the Orioles' farm system and later managed the Orioles, including his two sons, Cal Jr. and Bill.

Applying the fundamentals taught her by her grandfather and other family members, Austyn, a senior catcher at Havre de Grace, earns notice as much for her ability as her famous last name.

"Her name brings attention to her, but then it just allows people to see what's already there," said Warriors coach Dave Tramontana.

A four-year varsity starter, Ripken has a career batting average of .332 to go along with three home runs, 28 RBIs and 49 runs. It's her defense and consistency, however, that draw the most praise.

And while it may not be The Streak, she has started every game in her high school career.

"I wanted to play catcher because it's a position where you're involved in every play," said Ripken. "When there's a runner on base, I want them to go. I love to be challenged."

She threw out two runners attempting to steal in the Warriors' game against North Harford on April 2.

As quick as her release is to second base, Ripken is even quicker to deflect attention, a Ripken trait. She is quite comfortable talking about the progress of Havre de Grace, which has made giant strides in the last four years after being a staple at the bottom of the county standings.

Most of the seniors have played together since they were very young; some, like Ripken and center fielder and top hitter Meghan DiMauro, were in nursery school together.

The familiarity has bred confidence. The Warriors hovered around the .500 mark for most of Ripken's freshman season, but won 10 and 12 games each of the previous two seasons.

This year, the Warriors are 3-1, and they expect to challenge county powers Fallston and C. Milton Wright.

"Our first step is to compete for a county championship, then we want to be regional champs and go on to states," said Ripken, a three-year captain.

A shy, pleasant 17-year-old, she talked about her hatred for losing and about how she goes out and corrects any mistakes from a previous game. She also talked about drive, determination and hard work, all words that define the Ripken way.

Said Tramontana: "I think, quietly, there's a little more pressure on her [because of her name]. She knows where she comes from and the legacy of that family. ... She just works real hard and it's contagious to the people around her."

"We taught her to be humble and that, while she had a special background, so does everybody else," said Tina Ripken. "She's had to make her own way and she's done it with a lot of grace and under a lot of pressure."

"She is just a good person who I can rely on," said fellow senior Holly Martin. "A lot of people beef her up because she's a Ripken. They think because of her last name, she must have an ego, but she handles it well. ... When I first met her, I was like, `Oh my God, I got to meet Cal Sr., Ms. Vi and Billy and Cal. But now, she's just Austyn. She's another teammate to us."

Austyn was at Camden Yards for many of her Uncle Cal's defining moments, including his emotional last game. She also recounted memories of Sept. 5, 1995, when Cal played his 2,131st consecutive game, breaking Lou Gehrig's record, even remembering what she was wore that night.

But it was watching another Ripken, Elly, the oldest and only daughter of Cal Sr. and Vi's clan, that inspired Austyn the most. Elly was a standout softball player at Aberdeen High School and Austyn watched her play in summer leagues..

"Watching her sent chills up my spine," said Austyn. "I'd sit there and wonder if I'd be that good some day."

Austyn, a good student who is active in the school band and also plays volleyball, has been accepted at Towson University, though she's not sure she'll play softball there. She has also been recruited by Shepherd College, a small Division II school in West Virginia, but staying closer to home has a lot to offer.

Last summer, she worked in game-day promotions at Aberdeen's Ripken Stadium, home of the Single A New York-Penn League's IronBirds.

Saying she has "a blast being around kids," Austyn coaches the Havre de Grace Grays, a 9- and 10-year-old softball team whose roster includes her sister, Mariah, 11. About four years ago, she was coached by her father, Fred, on a Junior All-Star team.

"I think the biggest thing is I'm carrying on the legacy of my grandfather," said Austyn of Cal Sr., who died of cancer in 1999. Austyn called him her best friend and biggest supporter, and wears No. 7 in his honor.

"He came to almost every game. When I get a big hit or make a good play, I think about it and know that I did it for him."

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