Softball: Barbanente moves into Lake Park's leadoff role and thrives
Opposing pitchers and teams had no fun facing Lake Park shortstop Michela Barbanente these past two springs.
But while her goal is to do her best to make sure her teammates are always having fun, she plans to make things even worse on her foes in 2023 when the junior will look to cap off a brilliant four years of high school softball in fine fashion before heading off to play at Penn State.
A first-team all-stater and unanimous all-DuKane Conference selection in 2021, Barbanente was even better this spring yet has even loftier goals for 2023. This season she batted .495, with a .610 OBP and 1.568 OPS while being named the unanimous conference player of the year for the 18-13 Lancers, who claimed a regional crown before falling to eventual state champion St. Charles North in the Class 4A sectional semifinals.
It's why Barbanente is the 2022 DuPage County Daily Herald All-Area captain for softball.
"I'm pretty sure I told Coach (Tom Mazzie) I want to hit 1.000 next year," she said jokingly. "I was like, I'm not going to waste any at-bats."
Lofty goals are not to be taken lightly with Barbanente, who made the switch to leadoff hitter this spring and preceded to score 53 runs, belt 10 home runs and swipe 27 bases in 27 attempts. She recorded 29 RBI and 47 hits -- 20 for extra bases -- walked 24 times (10 intentionally) and struck out only seven times all year.
"Our conference is one of the toughest in the state," Mazzie said. "Four regional champs from one conference is pretty crazy, plus our schedule also included Neuqua Valley, Barrington, Marengo, Conant, Hersey and Elk Grove. Her offensive stats given our strength of schedule are unreal.
"Fifty-three runs scored in 31 games played is absolutely ridiculous. If Michela is put on first base, she is automatically on second. A walk turns into a double. She puts so much pressure on the defense. She scored 20% of our team's runs this season. We were never shut out in large part because of her."
After batting second or third most of her sophomore year, Barbanente's move to the top of the order was a smooth one, once she put her mind to it.
"It was a just a matter of mentally making a little bit of an adjustment this year," she said. "But I think once you realize that the coach wanted someone who's gonna bat .500 to start things off all the time, then I was really excited about it. A lot of colleges now are having their best, most consistent hitter bat first while traditionally it's usually your slap hitter or your speedy hitter."
While Barbanente is no slap hitter as her power numbers make clear, her speed on the basepaths is just as impressive as her bat, arm and range in the field. Then there's her drive to thrive, and her desire to have fun in the process and make sure those around her are doing the same.
When COVID-19 wiped out her freshman softball campaign, Barbanente played singles on the Lake Park tennis team in the fall. Her family also moved to Arizona for a few months that year so Michela could attend classes in person. While there she played a little basketball and managed to pick up all-state honors while leading Arizona in rebounds. She also excels at basketball and volleyball for the Lancers.
"I've always had this goal in high school, and I'll tell you what I said to my teachers on the last day of school," she said. "I just want to win a regional in every sport I play in at Lake Park. So far we won a regional in basketball my freshman year, and we've yet to win regional in volleyball. But my goal for this season was I really wanted to win a regional in softball, and this was the year we did it."
Leadership, attitude and effort are three traits that help Barbanente stand out among many talented players in DuPage County.
"I have known Michela since she was a sixth-grader. I have never seen Michela take a rep as less than 100%. Michela's greatest attribute is her drive. She has a motor that just does not quit," Mazzie said.
She credits her sister Cassi, and her mother, Jackie, with helping her greatly along the way. Cassi is a gymnast at Arizona State University who gave up softball to focus on gymnastics in high school.
"Michela has been blessed with physical attributes that we would all dream of, but she has never once taken those gifts for granted," Mazzie added. "The intensity Michela brings on game day is the same intensity that she brings to every practice and off season workout. Her joy for softball and determination to be the best she can be is infectious to our entire team.
"I am blessed to have a five-tool player that is down to earth and treats everyone around her with respect. She is a humble superstar that expects greatness out of herself and our entire team. Michela makes everyone associated with Lake Park softball better including the coaches. I would not trade Michela for any other player in this state."
That's high praise from her coach, but Barbanente goes out and earns it all the time.
Not even a 19-2 deficit to St. Charles East early this spring could get her and her teammates too down.
"You probably don't believe it all, but we were down 19-2 in the second inning," she said. "I said to the umpire, 'I swear we're not this bad.' It just was a bad start. It was a bad vibe. It was really cold outside and we were about to be slaughtered."
The Lancers' bats got on a roll, the pitching and defense blanked the Saints the rest of the way, and somehow Lake Park prevailed 20-19.
"Afterward the entire team came to my house and we were talking about team unity," Barbanente said. "And I kid you not, we sat down at the table for maybe 30 minutes and talked about things that were played through our head during that game, because we're not a team that gets shut out or slaughtered. We're the type of team where we fight back and we motivate each other to keep pushing."
Northwestern and a couple other Power Five schools were on her shortlist of college choices, but she picked Penn State for both its softball and broadcast journalism programs.
"Ultimately, they fit me the best," she said. "They felt like home and with the academics I couldn't ask for a better fit. I'm extremely blessed to be able to go out and put on that Penn State jersey in a year."
But first comes another season with the Lancers, and the sky is the limit.
"Next year, as always, you want to win a regional. I think we're gonna push for a sectional next year and obviously, we all want to go downstate," she said. "As always, I think being a part of something that's fun is huge and is extremely important. I just want to make stuff fun for everyone because it's important to love what you're doing when you're doing it so often."