Lancers, Lions and Minutemen will play on Tuesday for the chance to visit Toms River on June 8

The high school softball season is down to the last week, and Essex County has three teams still in the mix for a state championship.

Livingston (25-3) won the NJSIAA, North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 title for the second straight year by defeating Morris Knolls, 11-3, in the title game on May 31. While the score might indicate a blow out, the game was far from it. More on that shortly.

In Non-Public A, Mount St. Dominic (25-6) won a classic, rallying from 4-0 down to defeat Paramus Catholic, 5-4, in nine innings. The Mount will take on the state’s top-ranked team, Immaculate Heart Academy, on June 4 for the North Non-Public A championship at Ivy Hill Park in Newark, beginning around 7 p.m.

Head coach Lorenzo Sozio’s team last played for the championship in 2009, when it lost a close game to IHA. In 2008, IHA also edged MSDA for the North Non-Public A title.

And, in Non-Public B, Newark Academy (22-7) will seek its first North Non-Public B title when it takes on top-seeded Lodi Immaculate on June 4 at Ivy Hill, in a 4 p.m. start. The Minutemen, who have already set the school record for wins in a season, advanced by defeating Oak Knoll, 10-4.

Livingston never trailed in its game against an old-time rival in Morris Knolls. It lead 4-0 heading into the fourth before Knolls scored three times.
“We’ve played Morris Knolls enough over the years to know that a 4-0 lead wouldn’t be enough,” Livingston coach Jason Daily said. “Those kids played hard, they’re well coached and go after it. Our kids showed the same tenacity. We took advantage of opportunities, too, and were able to get some key runs late.”

Livingston answered Morris Knolls’ charge by scoring once in the bottom of the fourth, then broke the game open in an usual way in the fifth. Morris Knolls had retired the first batter and appeared to have the second out when Yinka Fasehun was struck out. But on the third strike, the ball eluded the catcher and Fasehun took off for first and was safe.

The play was huge because eventually, Fasehun would score for Livingston with some tremendous base running before coming around on a fielder’s choice.

“That play was huge,” Daily said. “If she’s out there, it’s two outs and on one on.”

Instead, Livingston would score six runs in the inning as its team speed was evident.

Livingston’s defense also came up big.  In the first, leftfielder Cate Leu made a splendid catch of a drive to snuff out a Knolls rally. Third baseman Katie Horiuchi and shortstop Sammi Rothenberger turned some huge put outs at third on fielder’s choices which kept Morris Knolls at bay in its best inning, the fourth.

And the play of Rachel Wasilak can never be overlooked. Her defense was superb while Wasilak’s three hits were key to the win.

There are many who say Wasilak is Livingston’s best player, and it’s hard to disagree. (See recent feature on her. https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/livingstons-wasilak-a-study-of-softball-intellect-and-a-love-for-the-game).

Mount St. Dominic showed its usual character by rallying back to defeat Paramus Catholic, 5-4. The Lions trailed the Paladins, 4-0, in the third before Katie Johnson hit a RBI triple and later scored. The Mount tied it in the fourth on a sacrifice fly by Helena Bissell and Ally Dabroski’s run-scoring double.

In the ninth, freshman Liz Crowell drove in the winning run with a single to seal the win. Sam Platt was the winning pitcher in relief, hurling 6 2/3 innings and scattering five hits while giving up one earned run.

Like MSDA, Newark Academy also faced an early deficit, but the Livingston-based school broke it open with a five-run fourth inning to erase a 4-1 Oak Knoll lead. The Minutmen led 6-4 after four, then added three more in the fifth and one in the sixth.

Courtney Luing had a bases-loaded triple in the fourth while Lauren Catena was 3-for-5 with three RBI. Newark Academy had 12 hits in the game.

By mike051893

There’s a reason why Livingston’s Peslak is Secretariat

While watching Livingston win a second straight NJSIAA, North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 title on May 31 in Livingston, West Essex coach Andrea Mondadori gave a clear assessment of Livingston senior pitcher Jess Peslak.

“She is so tough,” Mondadori said of the pitcher I like to call ‘Secretariat’. “I don’t think people realize how much she’s been through this season. She’s been hurting, but she’s always out there. Teams might get a few hits off her, but when she needs to bear down, she gets it done. Plain and simple.”

Secretariat The Photo

Mondadori should know, since her team has faced Livingston five times over the past two seasons.

“And you have to credit (Livingston head coach) Jason (Daily),” Mondadori said. “Those kids play great defense, and they just hit and hit. And don’t give them extra outs, or you’re really in trouble.”

jasonLivingston coach Jason Daily gets doused by his players after winning a title. (Courtesy of Elena Lombardi)

Which brings the conversation back to Peslak, who pitched a complete game as Livingston defeated Morris Knolls, 11-3. Peslak was also 2-for-2 at the plate with two RBI. It was a second straight trifecta for Livingston, as the Lancers won the Super Essex Conference, Essex County Tournament and state sectional title for a second straight season.

As coaches like to call outstanding players, Peslak is a stud. (Thus the Secretariat moniker).

jess and marinaJess Peslak (r) and batterymate Marina Lombardi do a lot of stretching before games. (Courtesy, Elena Lombardi)

Morris Knolls scored all three of its runs against Peslak in the fourth inning, which pulled the Morris County school to within 4-3. But true to Livignston’s character, it came right back, scoring  a run in the last of the fourth on a RBI triple by ‘Seattle Slew’, Kyle McLaughlin, then adding six runs in the bottom of the fifth with some of the craftiest base running and bunting you’ll ever see, which broke the game open.

km 4Kylie McLaughlin, ‘Seattle Slew’, had a key triple for the Lancers as Livingston won a second straight state sectional title on May 31.

And all Peslak did was blank Morris Knolls over the last three innings to negate any type of rally.

“We still have two games left,” Peslak was quick to remind anyone who was within earshot afterward. “Two more games.”

Livingston will face Watchung Hills, the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 champ, in a Group 4 semifinal on June 4 in Nutley. The winner of that game faces the Washington-Hillsborough victor on June 8 in Toms River for the group championship.

Peslak’s tenacity in the circle this season may not have yielded the same numbers as last year, but she’s probably a more complete pitcher in 2013, simply because, like Mondadori said, she hasn’t been fully healthy. A hip pointer, hamstring pulls and more recently back spasms have ‘slowed’ her, if you will, even when she records double figures in strikeouts on a still consistent basis.

“I was a little sore today,” Peslak said. “But I’ll be fine. A little ice and I’m ready for the next game.”

She is also quick to credit her team for the 25-3 record the Lancers have put together, including 19 straight victories.

“This is all about my teammates,” Peslak said. “They’re great. They’re always there for me when I’m in the circle. I don’t feel like I have to strike everyone out, and I can adjust to what the umpires are giving me, because I know the defense will be there.”

livLivingston players celebrate a second straight sectional crown. (Courtesy of Elena Lombardi)

And so, the Lancers will prepare for a state semi, then hopefully, on the same day as the Belmont Stakes will be run in New York City, Livingston will have Secretariat in the circle for that final game, a shot at a Group 4 title.

secretariat-at-belmont-1-by-sue1

By mike051893

‘Best Teammates’ in SEC are recognized at Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center

The Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center has put together some tremendous programs for local high school students, as well as student-athletes. The Center has worked well with member schools of the Super Essex Conference (SEC), in collaboration with Investors Bank.

On May 21, the Museum hosted a reception and buffet dinner at Yogi Berra Stadium, on the campus of Montclair State University, to honor the “Best Teammates” for the 2012-2013 school year. One student from each of the 37 schools within the SEC was honored, with the awards presented in the theater of the museum.

Dave Kaplan, the museum’s director, welcomed everyone and pointed out how appropriate the Best Teammate award is, because Yogi Berra, himself, took pride on being called the best teammate. Kaplan also called the night the highlight of the year for the museum and praised Investors Bank President and CEO, Kevin Cummings, for sponsoring the event.

yogiAltiliyah Butler of Shabazz High was recently awarded with the 2013 Best Teammate Award for the Super Essex Conference at the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center.  Butler, a junior on Shabazz’s state champion girls basketball team,  was one of 37 student-athletes from a SEC high school honored for their selflessness and promoting team unity at an awards banquet on May 21. Presenting her award are Scott Brunner (l.), former New York Giants quarterback and Kevin Cummings, president and CEO of Investors Bank, a major supporter of the Museum’s character education programs. (Photo courtesy of Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center).

“When John McCarthy and I first met with Kevin to tell him about our plan to recognize the best teammates in the SEC, it took him less than 10 seconds to say ‘count us in’,” Kaplan recalled. “He and his branch managers are really committed to kids.”

The guest speaker for the evening was former New York Giants, Denver Broncos and St. Louis Cardinals quarterback Scott Brunner, who today is an Executive Vice President for Net Worth Management. A New Jersey native, Brunner was graduated from Lawrenceville Prep and led the 1981 Giants to its first playoff appearance in 18 years and the team’s first playoff win in 23 seasons. He had an interesting philosophy on management style, using geese as an analogy.

“There’s always one out in front leading the way,” Brunner said. “Others fly behind in formation, constantly honking to show their support. If the one in front drops out, another fills the spot and they move on. The one who falls off is supported by the others. And so it is with a team, everyone has a role.’

The awards ceremony was conducted by McCarthy, a co-founder of The Institute for Coaching at the museum. McCarthy, a former speech teacher, lightened the mood by reminding the audience that ” this is a celebration, not a library council meeting!” He went on to inject humor when appropriate as the 37 honored guests received their plaques from Cummings and Ed Manigan, the AD at Newark Academy, who handled the selection and notification process.

“We couldn’t have done this without the dogged persistence of Ed,” said Kaplan. “He contacted and got a response from every school in the conference. It took time, but he stayed with it. He also secured a brief statement from a coach or an AD that was read about each recipient. He was invaluable to us.”

 McCarthy pointed out that this recognition should make each honoree especially proud.

“It’s one thing to get recognition because you’re a good player, as many of you are,” McCarthy said. “It’s more special, we think, to be honored for being a good person.Talent fades in time, character doesn’t. We know your parents are proud of you; they played a big part in your development.’

“If you’re looking for role models, you need look no further than Kevin Cummings or Yogi Berra. Not only have these men been successful, they’ve been significant because they’ve helped others become successful. We hope that will be your goal, to be significant.”

McCarthy also noted, “I thought this award really drove home essential parts of a team.  Selfless contributions for the greater good and encouragement of other teammates are staples of any good program.  This award embodies both concepts and awards those students that are the ever-positive driving force that propels success. The message delivered that night was very clear.  You may not be able to control your level of athletic talent, but you sure can control your attitude and encourage others to do well.  That is what a teammate does and that is sure what Yogi Berra is best known for.  The students recognized have now left their legacy on their respective schools.  Looking forward, others on the team(s) can certainly do the same.

Belleville High School athletic director Tom D’Elia was very impressed with the evening’s message.

“Our award winner,Domenick Gonnella, has been the backbone of his (high school baseball) team for four years,” D’Elia said. “Domenick may not grab press for his athletic contributions, but he is the first one at practice, last one to leave, he is the first off the bench on a good or bad play to cheer on his teammates.  Domenick knows the pitch count, batting order, and inning/score.  He doesn’t have to be asked to cheer or to help clean up.  He is the silent bar that raises everyone else’s potential around him.  He is a true teammate.”

Bloomfield AD Steve Jenkins concurred.

“The Best Teammate award is an outstanding opportunity to recognize those athletes that are the glue that hold teams together,” Jenkins said. “Their actions often go unnoticed by the general public but their teammates and Coaches are well aware of their significance to a program’s success.”

 

By mike051893

Livingston wins 18th straight as Secretariat fans 12 and Marina Lombardi collects 2 hits; Mount St. Dominic onto next round as Gabby Lombardi continues to play well; Newark Academy advances in Non-Public B

We’re down to three Essex County schools still in the running for a state sectional title.

Livingston, the top-ranked team in the FMTC poll since the season’s inception, won its 18th straight game on May 29, defeating a tough Clifton team, 2-0, in the NJSIAA, North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 semifinal.

The defending champion and top-seeded Lancers (24-3) will seek a second straight sectional title on May 31 when it hosts second-seeded Morris Knolls at 4 p.m.

Senior pitcher Jess Peslak was outstanding, with 12 strikeouts while scattering four hits and walking one.

“Clifton had a very good team,” Peslak said. “They were aggressive and it was a hard-fought game. My teammates came through on offense when it was needed. It was warm today and I enjoy pitching in that kind of weather.”

jess and marinaLivingston’s Jess Peslak (right) and Marina Lombardi were outstanding in a 2-0 win over Clifton in the sectional semifinal on May 29.

‘Secretariat’s’ batterymate Marina Lombardi had two hits and drove in a run while ‘Seattle Slew’, Kylie McLaughlin, had a hit and drove in a run for the Lancers.

“We’re looking forward to playing a very good team in Morris Knolls on Friday,” Peslak said. “They’re an excellent team. Winning a sectional title is one of our goals, but it’s not THE goal. That comes in another week (referring to the Group 4 championship game in Toms River on June 8).

Mount St. Dominic (24-6) downed Union Catholic, 10-0, in six innings as Olivia Gemma hit a homer and the Lions got a well pitched game from Sam Platt and Gemma.

The Lions face a big test on Friday when it hosts Paramus Catholic in a North, Non-Public B semifinal. The winner could face top-ranked Immaculate Heart Academy for the North championship next week.

Mount St. Dominic’s outstanding team balance means just about any player can make a big contribution to what has been a marvelous season thus far. One of those key players has been Gabby Lombardi, a sophomore shortstop who was outstanding in a win over Bloomfield on May 27. Lombardi had three hits and made some clutch plays on defense.

glGabby Lombardi of Mount St. Dominic has been a steady performer for the Lions.

The Mount beat the Bengals, 5-1, at The Pond in Bloomfield. It was a game the Lions didn’t need, while it was Bloomfield’s season finale. But the Lions, knowing that momentum is sometimes the next opponent on the schedule, beat a 19-win team and Lombardi, a wonderful young woman off the field who comes from a very nice family, was a big reason why.

The Minutemen of Newark Academy (21-7) will play in the North Non-Public B semifinal on Friday against Oak Knoll after blanking Morris Catholic today, 2-0.

Coach Serg Rodriguez’s team could face powerful Lodi Immaculate for the North Non-Public B championship next week.

West Essex lost a 1-0 game to Hanover Park in the semifinals of North Jersey, Section 2, Group 2 while Nutley was eliminated in North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3, by West Morris Central, 9-1. The Raiders had an outstanding season, winning 22 games.

By mike051893

After a respite, the stretch run reaches full throttle as Livingston, Mount St. Dominic, West Essex, Nutley, Newark Academy and MKA go after crowns; Updated top 10

The 2013 scholastic softball season will end in less than two weeks. And, really, the season can end on any day for the remaining teams still in the hunt for a NJSIAA sectional title.

Heading into the state games of May 28, Livingston, Mount St. Dominic Academy, Nutley, West Essex, Newark Academy and Montclair Kimberley Academy were the teams from Essex County still in the mix for a title.

Livingston, the top seed in North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 and that section’s defending champ, will host Clifton in a sectional semifinal. The Lancers haven’t played since defeating Bergen Tech on May 22. Nutley, which last won a section in 2010, will visit West Morris Central in a North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 semifinal in Long Valley. The Raiders put themselves in that position with a solid 3-0 victory over South Plainfield last Sunday.

West Essex is going after its first sectional crown since 2010 when it visits old-time rival Hanover Park in a semifinal. The Knights had a crazy game with Hackettstown last Sunday, winning in extra innings, 4-3.

The Non Publics will also get busy starting on May 28. The Lions of Mount St. Dominic will take on Union Catholic on the 28th and with a win, would face the winner of Paramus Catholic-Holy Angels three days later in a Non-Public A semifinal.

In Non-Public B, Newark Academy faces Morris Catholic on May 28 and, with a win, would take on the Hudson Catholic-Oak Knoll victor on May 31. Montclair Kimberley is home to Eastern Christian on the 28th and if it prevails, visits top-seeded Lodi Immaculate on the 3st.

The last Essex County team to appear in a Group championship game was Nutley in 2010.

Here’s the updated FMTC top 10.

1-Livingston (23-3): Lancers have won 17 straight heading into Tuesday’s sectional semifinal game with Clifton.

2-Mount St. Dominic (23-6): Lions could face IHA in a tremendous North Non-Public A final.

3-Nutley (22-6): Luann Zullo’s best coaching job with a very young Raiders team.

4-Newark Academy (20-7): Minutemen are primed for a run in Non-Public B.

5-Cedar Grove (15-9): Team lost more than its share of heart breakers, including state loss to New Milford.

6-Bloomfield (19-7): Good season for Bengals, which won SEC Liberty Division and advanced to ECT semis.

7-Caldwell (14-12): Chiefs ended season well, lost tough game to Rutherford in sectional quarterfinals.

8-West Essex (12-14): Knights still in the running in state sectionals. Will visit Hanover Park next.

9-Montclair (7-17): Mounties ended season playing better and will look to 2014.

10-Montclair Kimberley (12-11): MKA hopes to relive the glory of its past in Non-Public B.

By mike051893

On Memorial Day, thank you AJA and to those who also made the ultimate sacrifice

He served his country without hesitation. He was a father, husband and son. He loved his country and volunteered for a mission that he knew was dangerous.

He lost his life in Vietnam on Jan. 20, 1967, and while Arthur J. Abramoff’s service to his country as a pilot in the United States Air Force will resemble the bravery and heroics of so many other men and women, his legacy hits home for me a little more because he was my uncle.AJA Memorial Day

I was 8 years old on Saturday, Jan. 21, 1967 when a knock on the door of my grandmother’s house in Margate, NJ would change our family’s life forever. My parents decided to visit my grandmother, as well as my aunt and two young cousins for essentially, the day. It was about a 2 hour drive from our then-home in the Ivy Hill section of Newark to Margate, and in January, there’s not much traffic on the Garden State Parkway, so the drive was uneventful.

Mgatephoto1966I’m standing at the far right, with my uncle Art to my left. Also in photo (left to right) my grandmother, Betty, my father, Elias, Aunt Jane, Cousin Billy, my mother Marilyn and cousin Karen. This was the last photo taken before Art left for Vietnam.

We may have been at the house on Iroquois Avenue in Margate no more than 10 minutes when the doorbell rang. All I remember is my aunt saying to the man, who turned out to be a Military Chaplain, ‘oh, you’re in the wrong house’.

Any military wife knows who the Chaplain is and why he, or she, would be at the front door, especially during war time.

The Chaplain delivered a letter, essentially saying that the aircraft which 1st Lt. Arthur J. Abramoff was piloting on Jan. 20, 1967, was shot down over Vietnam. Despite valiant attempts to save him, Lt. Abramoff was killed in action. His body was recovered and would be flown back to the United States. A second crewman aboard that flight, a United States Army officer, survived the crash.

Mgate old school

The rest of that day was kind of numb for all of us. I remember we stayed the next two nights in Margate, but my father wanted me to get back to school by the following Tuesday, so he drove me back to our home in Newark on the evening of Jan. 23.

My uncle and I were pretty close, and even though I was barely 8 when he died, the memories remain strong to this day.

On May 1, 2006, New York University, my uncle’s alma mater, dedicated a portion of the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for University Life to Art’s memory. I had the chance to meet a lot of my uncle’s classmates and friends that day.

I also met now retired Col. Devere Henderson, who, like my uncle, was a young pilot stationed in Vietnam on Jan. 20, 1967. Col. Henderson was on the rescue mission that day in an attempt to save my uncle. It was an honor to meet Col. Henderson, a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy that day, and I’ll always be grateful to him for his service and valor.

I always find watching video of Super Bowl I to be surreal for me, because it was played on Jan. 15, 1967, just five days before Art’s final flight. Every time I see that tape of Green Bay playing Kansas City, it’s like ‘wow, he was still with us that day’.

Art Abramoff was 25 years old. He left behind a wife, Jane, daughter, Karen, son, Billy, sister, Marilyn and his mother, Betty.

I’ll never forget his service, nor the countless other Americans who have fought and died for our freedoms.

Thank you.

By mike051893

Nutley’s Malanga and Williams look back on 4 tremendous years

They are the last player links to Nutley’s 2010 state sectional championship team, as well as the Group 3 finalist from that season.

And as Victoria Malanga and Heather Williams wind down their high school softball careers with the Raiders, the two young women have a strong perspective on what competing at a high level has done for their personal growth and development.

vicVictoria Malanga looks to the dugout for the pitch call. (Photos courtesy of Luann Zullo)

“It’s been wonderful,” Williams, a first baseman, said at practice yesterday as Nutley prepares for the second round of the NJSIAA, North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 tournament. “This team has been so much fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but once we got to Florida and started playing there, I could tell we were going to be okay. The younger kids showed right away they were ready for the next level.”

heatherHeather Williams, seen here on St. Patrick’s Day during the team’s trip to Florida, has been a reliable first baseman for coach Luann Zullo and the Nutley Raiders

Malanga, who has started behind the plate since her freshman year, agreed.

“These freshmen are something else,” Malanga said of Nutley’s core base of youngsters this year. “Sometimes, it’s like we have to hang out with them, because there are only two seniors. But seriously, they’re great kids, and I like the opportunity to be a leader on this team. It means a lot to me. I think the younger kids listen, and if you look at the season we’re having, it’s working.”

After a 13-12 campaign in 2012 which resulted in zero victories in post-season play (county and state tourneys), Nutley has come on, big time, in 2013. Playing in the Super Essex Conference’s American Division, the Raiders finished third and will take an overall record of 21-6 into a sectional quarterfinal, at home, opposite South Plainfield, on May 24. A win there moves the Raiders into the semifinals on May 28.

Nutley coach Luann Zullo knew pretty quickly that Malanga and Williams were ready to assume the important leadership role in 2013.

“We had our year-end meeting last season after the Rahway loss in the states,” Zullo recalled. “We talked to the entire team, then the (2012) seniors left the room. Right then, Victoria kind of set the tone and I said ‘we might be okay, after all.’ I mean, you never know with so many young kids coming up how things are going to go, but I couldn’t be happier with this team. It’s been so enjoyable this season. There’s no drama, the kids enjoy each other’s company and we’re having a real nice year. A lot of that credit goes to Victoria and Heather.”

Zullo recalled a funny moment with an unassuming and very shy Malanga back in 2010.

“I always tried to get her to open up back then, but she was so quiet,” Zullo said. “So, it’s the day after the game when (Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga) lost his perfect game on a bad call by the umpire. It’s was also the day after we had beaten Paramus (in the Group 3 semifinal game) and we’re going to play that Saturday (against Middletown South, for the Group 3 title). And I’m trying to get her to understand a certain play, so I say to her, ‘did you see that game last night?’ And she shakes her head (affirmatively). And I said ‘so what happened?’ and she says ‘I don’t know, I didn’t see it.’ And now it’s getting crazy and I say ‘then why’d you say you saw it?’ But it was just a way to get her to understand the game and how to deal with adversity. She was so talented, but I don’t think she understood then what her abilities were.”

Last-out.jpg730_20100602211932_660_320A controversial call at first which cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game in 2010 turned out to be a learning experience for Victoria Malanga.

Three years later, a very affable Malanga credits her coach, greatly.

“I’m not the person I am today without her,” Malanga said. “She’s taught me so much. And it’s funny, because I see the way she is with this group of freshmen, and Coach is different now. She’s a little more laid back with them, but I can see why. A good coach knows how to adjust to her players. She was tough on me, but I needed that.”

Williams concurred.

heather 2Nutley’s Heather Williams.

“Oh, she’s way different now,” Williams said with a laugh. “I’m not sure how this group would have handled the Coach we knew as freshmen. But again, this is a different chemistry than what we had as freshmen. And that’s a good thing. Times change. I wouldn’t trade anything for the memories we had, especially with that run to the state championship game. That was incredible.”

Nutley’s 2010 campaign was indeed the story of two seasons. The Raiders had struggled mightily into mid May of that year, playing around .500 ball. There were numerous meetings after games, long talks, but nothing seemed to work. Following a 4-0 loss to Livingston in a SEC game, a contest the Raiders played well in, but fell short to a freshman pitcher named Jess Peslak, Zullo finally got through to the team.

“I told them to just settle down and play,” Zullo said. “That was such a high strung team and any loss created more drama. That group was so talented.”

Williams recalled tee-shirts the coach then presented her team.

“The shirts said ‘Be The Solution’, and seriously, after that, it was all different,” Williams said.

“We didn’t lose another game, really, until the we got the state final,” said Malanga.

vic 2Malanga plans to play softball in college this fall.

Nutley went on to win the sectional championship, then blanked Paramus, 6-0, in the Group 3 semifinal before losing a heartbreaking 5-2 decision to Middletown South in a game Nutley led at one point, 2-1.

“What a run,” Malanga said. “It taught us so much.”

Nutley would win the Essex County Tournament title the following year, rallying past Peslak and Livingston, 5-4, in a classic semifinal before blanking Mount St. Dominic in the final, 3-0.

“I think about those early years,” Malanga said. “I go out to the circle now and talk to (starting pitcher) Carly (Anderson) and I feel good about working with her. She’s such a good kid. But I remember when Coach would tell me to talk to Kayla (Huegel, Nutley’s star pitcher who was graduated in 2011) and I didn’t know what to say. It was like ‘okay, here I am.’ But I learned a lot from playing with Kayla, Eileen (Purcell), Lauren (Iradi) and Kristen (Mattia).

Williams didn’t even blink when asked if this year’s team could match the successes of 2010 and play in Toms River on June 8 in the Group 3 final.

“No doubt,” Williams said. “These kids? Are you kidding? They can play, and nothing bothers them. We’ve played really good teams in our conference, like Livingston and Mount St. Dominic. Our younger kids had no idea who Peslak was when we played, they just went out and competed. We came up short, but we were right there in all those games.”

Both agree that the end will be melancholy.

“I don’t want it to end,” Malanga said. “I really don’t, but I understand it will soon.”

Malanga will either attend Kean University this fall, or the County College of Morris. She plans to play softball at the next level and hopefully focus on a career in sports medicine, possibly as a physical therapist. She has impressed college coaches and opposing high school coaches with her tremendous defense and ability at the plate.

Williams will be headed to Coastal Carolina University.

Coastal_Carolina_LogoCoastal Carolina University is the next destination for Heather Williams.

“It’s the next step,” she said with a smile. “But, yes, I’ll miss it here. Hopefully, we’ll have a few more games left before it wraps up.”

By mike051893

Bloomfield’s Spithogiannis bowled over by her years as a Bengal

Tina Spithogiannis, the young lady with that perpetual smile and always upbeat personality, looked a bit melancholy when she acknowledged that her high school days are quickly waning.

tsTina Spithogiannis’ familiar No. 26 was a welcomed sight in the Bloomfield lineup since 2010.

“I know,” she said with a sigh when reminded that her final high school softball game as a Bloomfield Bengal will be on May 24, weather permitting, at home against Super Essex Conference (SEC) rival Mount St. Dominic. “I can’t believe it’s almost over. It’s been so much fun, especially this year.”

A four-year starter for the Bengals and coach Bob Mayer, the life-long Bloomfield resident won”t be going far in the next phase of her life. She plans to attend Montclair State University and hopes to try out for that school’s softball team this fall. She aspires to be a pharmacist or athletic trainer.

“I want to stay involved with sports,” Spithogiannis said. “I know my major is a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

The 2013 campaign has been a good one for Spithogiannis and the Bengals (19-6). It won the SEC’s Liberty Division with a 13-1 record. Bloomfield also advanced to the Essex County Tournament semifinals for the first time in five years before losing to the eventual champion, Livingston. A disappointing loss to West Orange earlier this week ended the Bengals hopes in the state tournament.

“Losing the state game was tough,” Spithogiannis said. “We were excited about the states, but it wasn’t meant to be. It doesn’t take away from what we’ve accomplished.”

She knows that the final game, against Mount St. Dominic, could represent a 20th victory for the Bengals, which is a far cry from last year’s 6-15 campaign.

“It would be nice to get it against such a good team like the Mount,” she said. “And my summer coach (Rob Stern) is with the Mount, so that would be fun, too. But it won’t be easy, we know that. I do think we play well against the better teams.”

Spithogiannis is also a versatile athlete. She played tennis for Bloomfield and is also a standout bowler for the Bengals, where she was team captain and the top bowler with a 170 average.

bowl

“I just love bowling,” Spithogiannis said. “It’s so much fun. I started bowling in my sophomore year and I’m obsessed with it now. I can’t get enough of it.”

ts 2Tina  is also an outstanding bowler and admits she can’t get enough of the game.

She has been Bloomfield’s starting centerfielder since 2010, but Mayer noted Spithogiannis could have played a number of other positions for the softball team.

“Tina is such a good athlete that if we needed her to play just about any position, other than pitcher, I know she could have,” Mayer said. “She’s that good a player.”

When asked for her most memorable moment in softball, she was quick to respond.

“In my freshman year, we were playing West Essex at Pulaski Park and I was in center,” she recalled. “I remember being a little afraid to dive for a ball, especially with the seniors on that team, because I thought they’d think I didn’t know what I was doing. But in that game, I dove and caught it and it felt great.”

The Bengals will graduate eight seniors next month, including Spithogiannis, Jenna Orlando, Debbie Mazzeo, Damariz Mercado, Stephanie Mancuso, Mayra Latheef, Alexis Olaya and Amanda Kelm.

“Honestly, this senior class may be the hardest working group of kids I’ve ever coached,” Mayer said. “We’ve had some really good teams here, and there may have been more talented players, but these seniors really put the time in to get better. A lot of them, like Tina, played summer ball, as well as in the fall. Most of them did the winter workouts and just kept getting better. This season has been really enjoyable for me, and I’ll admit winning certainly helps, but these kids were really something.”

When asked what three people she’d most like to have dinner with, she replied Caitlin Lowe, a standout collegiate softball player and Silver Medalist in the 2008 Olympics and singers Miley Cyrus and the late Tupac Shakur.

“I met Caitlin Lowe and most of that Olympic team and that was tremendous,” Spithogiannis said. “And I always liked Tupac’s rap music. It had a lot of meaning.”

Spithogiannis admits it will be different not being teammates with this group of seniors once the game with Mount St. Dominic is over.

“A lot of us have been playing since the travel team days when we were in middle school,” she said. “We’ll all stay friends, but everyone is heading in different directions. It’s going to seem strange when it finally ends. I’m really grateful for all the wonderful times here.”

lowemileyTupac-Shakur-206528-1-402Spithogiannis’ choice for dinner would include (top to bottom) Caitlin Lowe, Miley Cyrus and Tupac Shakur.

By mike051893

A Rose by any other name couldn’t match Pezzuti’s importance to a young Wessex team

Rose Pezzuti plays softball with a controlled frenzy and passion for the game. She knows what she wants to accomplish and has set her goals accordingly.

A sophomore at West Essex High School in North Caldwell, Pezzuti plays first base for coach Andrea Mondadori’s team, but also enjoys playing behind the plate. In fact, Pezzuti hopes to be a catcher when it comes to college ball in a few years.

rpPezzuti sliding into second base during a home game against Mount St. Dominic. (Photo courtesy of Pezzuti family)

She strives for success, first for her team, but knowing that as her game improves, her team’s chances could follow suit. The nucleus of West Essex is young, so the future could be bright.

“We have the ability to be a very good team,” Pezzuti said on May 21, just before her team faced Cliffside Park in the first round of the NJSIAA, North Jersey, Section 2, Group 2 tournament. “I think we would have liked to win a few more games, but now we’re in the state tournament and everyone 0-0 again. We’re confident we can have a good run.”

West Essex defeated Cliffside Park, 8-0. and will take on Hackettstown on May 23 in the quarterfinal round. The Knights last won a sectional title in 2010.

Pezzuti’s work ethic and enjoyment of the game is something which impresses her coach.

“She’s such a great kid,” Mondadori said of Pezzuti. “She loves the game so much and is the ultimate team player. And she’s so talented that she can play a number of positions in the field. She’s good enough to be our regular starting catcher, but with (sophomore) Kim (Shaw) doing well there, we thought having Rose at first base gave us an even stronger team.

“But we’ve used Rose behind the plate, especially when (junior) Courtney (Mensch) pitches. Those two work very well together. She has a great release on throws and knows what she’s doing back there.”

“Catching  is what I want to do on the next level,” Pezzuti said. “I love being in the middle of the game and a part of every play.”

Pezzuti has worked hard to become a better player. She plays summer ball and during the school year, worked on her conditioning by running cross country and winter track. She has become an offensive threat with her consistent hitting while providing solid defense at first.

Her family is very athletic, as well. Her older brothers were standout athletes at West Essex while twin brother, Christopher, plays baseball for the Knights.

The unassuming, yet charismatic Pezzuti was quick to name the three she’d most like to have dinner with, which included singers Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan as well as New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter.

Taylor+Swiftlg_LukeBryan New York Yankees v Los Angeles Angels of AnaheimPezzuti’s three favorite people to have dinner with. (Top to bottom) Singers Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan and New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter.

In the meantime, it’s back to the grind of the NJSIAA tournament and hopefully, a season which will continue for a few more weeks at West Essex.

By mike051893

Montclair and Livingston play it the correct way

On paper, the first round of the NJSIAA, North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 tournament between top-seeded Livingston and 16th seeded Montclair on May 21 was supposed to signify an easy win for the Lancers.

And if you look at the 7-0 final score, I guess you can surmise Livingston did accomplish what it set out to do.

But kudos to both schools for the way they approached the game, and that’s a credit to the respective coaching staffs.

For Montclair, the goal was to compete and play hard. It wanted to play a full seven innings with the two-time Essex County Tournament and Super Essex Conference champs.

For Livingston, it was a chance to use multiple players and give the younger kids the opportunity to compete in a state tournament game.

This is the way high school sports is supposed to be played. There was no need to score over 10 runs and win by a ‘mercy rule’ by playing starters the entire game. It was a chance to compete and both head coaches recognized it.

Led by first-year head coach Dan Roberts, Montclair (7-17) received a nice pitching effort from freshman Erica Robles.

“She’s got some good stuff,” said Livingston coach Jason Daily. “I was very impressed. Montclair came to play. They’ve had some good teams there over the years and I’m sure they’ll be back in the conference and county races very soon.”

I spoke with Montclair assistant coach Michael Goldstein after the game. My first question was, is Roberts as great a guy as it appears?

“He’s a teddy bear, and great with the kids,” Goldstein said. “I’ve been coaching summer ball for a while and I have to say, Dan really relates well to them. He’s new to softball, but he’s an experienced coach. Most of all, he’s a gentleman.”

While the Mounties struggled in the early parts of the season, it came around pretty impressively down the stretch, including wins over Montclair Kimberley Academy and Newark Academy. In a home game against Nutley on April 25, it trailed 2-1 in the seventh before the Raiders pulled away.

Coach Roberts always seemed to have a smile on his face, and most of all, was respected and liked by opposing coaches.

There was a classy moment in the bottom of the sixth inning at Livingston. The Mounties starting shortstop, Deja Davis, was the team’s player in 2013. So when Montclair went out to play defense, Davis took her usual spot. But after the first at-bat, Roberts went to the mound, called his entire starting team into the circle and replaced Davis, so that she could be recognized by her teammates.

The Livingston and Montclair fans all applauded, as did players and coaches from both sides.

It was a simple, but eloquent gesture by Roberts and heartfelt by those in attendance.

As for Livingston (22-3), the Lancers won its 16th straight game and will take on Bergen Tech today, instead of tomorrow, in the second round of the sectionals since bad weather is expected on May 23.

“It was a good chance to play some of our younger kids,” Daily said. “We don’t get those chances, a lot, and to do it in a state game was nice.”

Goldstein also had respect for the Lancers.

“I know a bunch of their kids pretty well from summer ball, like Sammi (Rothenberger), Alexa (Altcheck) and Katie (Horiuchi),” Goldstein said. “They’re really good kids. And obviously (Livingston pitcher) Jess (Peslak) is incredible.

“I didn’t really know Jason until I started coaching the high school team this year and you can see he understands what it’s all about.”

The Livingston-Montclair game was just another in what sometimes seems like endless softball covering fall, spring and summer.

But this one was well done and deserved some accolades.

 

 

By mike051893