Three years ago, an unassuming freshman pitched Cedar Grove to its first Essex County Tournament (ECT) championship in 26 years. The following season, she guided her team back to the semifinals before a loss to Mount St. Dominic.
Two years and about 50 games later, Gabrielle Castelli will return to Ivy Hill Park for her third ECT semifinal, hoping this time she can get that second title, marking a county championship in her freshman and senior year.
“When I was a freshman, I just pitched and really didn’t know what was going on as far as a county championship,” Castelli recalled. “I remember it was a great feeling when we won and I probably figured I’d be back here again. But now I’m a senior and there’s probably more pressure because it’s my last time around. In a way, I like that. I’m looking forward to Friday night.”
Castelli will lead sixth seeded Cedar Grove (13-9) in a 6 p.m. contest at Ivy Hill Park opposite Mount St. Dominic, the second seed, on May 17. The winner of that game faces the (8 p.m.) Bloomfield-Livingston victor on May 18 for the county crown.
In 2010, Castelli pitched a shutout in the ECT final as Cedar Grove defeated top seeded West Essex, 2-0. A day earlier, in the semifinals, she held West Orange to a run in a 7-1 victory.
The youngest of three daughters born to Jimmy and Michele Castelli, Gabrielle has been playing softball since the age of 5. She’s been playing summer ball for the Tsumani since she was 10, with her dad as the head coach.
Castelli will attend William Paterson University this fall, where she will continue playing softball.
“I visited a lot of schools and felt William Paterson was the best choice,” she said. “It gives me the chance to live away, but it will be nice for my parents since they can come to most of my games.”
But before William Paterson, there’s the business of finishing the 2013 high school season on a run, something Castelli thinks is possible.
“We’ve won a lot the past few years,” Castelli said, referring to Cedar Grove’s back-to-back state sectional championships in 2011 and 2012. “This year, we’ve struggled at times, but I really like the way we’re starting to come around. This is a very close team. As a senior, I like to be able to help the younger kids. I remember when that was me, and when I see someone like (freshman second baseman) Kailey Weinstein, who is an amazing player, continuing to get better, it makes me feel we can make a run at the end of the season. This team is really close. We enjoy playing.”
Castelli credits coach Ray Van Der May for helping mold her curve ball and overall approach in the circle.
“He’s been great,” Castelli said. “With me, I feel like I”m getting stronger as the season goes on. I do a lot of work in the off season of building up my arm, so I don’t feel tired. The toughest part is playing teams two or three times in a season. After a while, they know what you’re throwing, so it’s a matter of trying to keep their hitters off balance.”
Before the counties, there’s a game on Thursday at Passaic Valley where, with a victory, Castelli will earn her 70th career win.
“That would be nice,” she said. “It means something. Like I said, hopefully our best softball is still ahead of us.”
As for Friday night, Castelli will face Mount St. Dominic for the 10th time in her career. Her first varsity game, on April 1, 2010, was also against The Mount, a game the Lions won, 6-4.
“Oh yeah, I remember,” Castelli said. “Katie (Johnson) got the winning hit to left field. We were both freshmen then, now it’s winding down. It should be fun.”