It seemed like yesterday.
On April 1, 2010, Mount St. Dominic Academy freshman Katie Johnson lined a single in the bottom of the sixth inning to defeat Cedar Grove, 6-4 in the first game of the new Super Essex Conference (SEC), at MSDA.
Cedar Grove’s pitcher that day was Gabby Castelli, herself a freshman. Before the end of that season, Castelli would lead the Panthers to its first Essex County Tournament championship in 26 years, pitching a shutout in the ECT final against a very good West Essex team, 2-0.
A few weeks later, at Cedar Grove’s Black and Tan Tournament, a Livingston freshman named Jess Peslak would pitch a game against powerful Sparta and made an immediate impact as the Lancers won, 2-0.
Livingston coach Jason Daily would keep Peslak somewhat under wraps that season, but as the year progressed, it became evident this kid was a strikeout machine. I remember a game at Livingston, in late April, which felt more like late January,when Castelli and Cedar Grove beat Peslak’s Lancers, 1-0. Both pitchers were outstanding that day. I also remember then-Cedar Grove coach Rob Stern dressed like a polar bear for that game, but that’s another story. (LOL).
At Bloomfield back in 2010, the fans were psyched about an up-and-coming freshman infielder named Jenna Orlando, who worked long and hard to become a tremendous athlete for the Bengals.
Anyway, over the years, Johnson, Castelli, Orlando and Peslak gave Essex County softball fans plenty of excitement with their stellar performances.
With Johnson, who I often call Katie J, it was truly the story of watching this kid grow up. Katie’s dad, Dean, is a long-time Assistant A.D. at Caldwell College. I worked at Caldwell from 1998-2004 as the school’s Sports Information Director. When I first started there, Katie was all of 3 years old and would often stop by my office when she came to work with Dean, juice box in hand.
Often, she’d discuss politics and the economy (well, not really), but she was pretty informative and usually was a stark critic of the various knickknacks I had in my office. especially the orange mini helmet I kept, being a big Cleveland Browns fan.
She’d often high-five me about something and, over the years, I saw her become a really nice young lady.
So, it was kind of fun writing about that key hit she had in the ’10 season opener, because having left Caldwell in 2004, I hadn’t seen much of her until she came to high school six years later.
Katie became a very good softball player at the Mount. I thought her breakout season came in 2012, especially in her play in the county tournament that year, most notably the semifinals and finals at Ivy Hill Park.
She will play softball at Central Connecticut State University this fall. I still can’t believe she’s graduated high school, but yes, time flies by.
Good luck, Katie, and thanks for the great memories.
Orlando, who will play at Lafayette College, was a tremendous all around athlete at Bloomfield High. An excellent volleyball player, she started her softball career at second base, then moved to shortstop last season and excelled.
But when it comes to her, it’s ‘the laugh’ which will always carry great memories for me.
It started in the summer of 2010. Jenna had played in a summer game and her dad, Tony, along with the Ross family, headed over to the Town Pub with their kids, wives and families for some traditional pizza. I’m not sure what started it, but something made Jenna laugh and I’ll never forget how infectious it was. We were all cracking up, and really had no idea why.
Orlando’s smile and laugh continued throughout high school and that great personality will take her far in life.
As for Castelli, watching her play was fun for a myriad of reasons, but mostly because I had covered her father, Jimmy, as a standout football player at Belleville High in another era. So when she got to high school, it was enjoyable watching her play, along with her dad, who remains a good friend.
After Cedar Grove had won the county title in 2010, Gabby was walking on the field with her teammates. She had taken her cleats off and was wearing flip flops, which drove Jimmy nuts.
“Gabby, why are you wearing those?” he’d say in mock horror. “Mike, can you talk to her?”, to which I said, “she’s not going to listen to me, pal.”
It was all in good fun. Over the years, Gabrielle had a very good career at Cedar Grove. In addition to the county title, she led the Panthers to back-to-back state sectional championships in 2011 and 2012. Her performance in the 2013 ECT semifinal should have been good enough to lead her team to the finals, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Castelli also pitched Cedar Grove to the 2011 ECT semifinal.
Gabby will attend William Paterson University in the fall, where she’ll continue to pitch. I think she’ll do great there, especially in the NJAC, which is an outstanding softball conference. She’ll also run into a few former teammates and high school foes, who are currently, or will be playing at NJAC schools.
Then, of course, there’s Peslak, or Secretariat as I’ve called her since 2010.
The horse moniker is the ‘stud’ theory of an outstanding pitcher, and I could probably write a book about her pitching and countless strikeouts.
I remember sitting with IHA coach Anthony Larezza and watching a state game with Montclair in 2010 when Peslak came in as a relief pitcher and was incredible. I remember a game in ’10 when Bloomfield’s Sarah Prezioso congratulated Peslak after the game on her dominant one-hit performance. (Prezioso, now a star at Temple University, bunted for Bloomfield’s only hit in the seventh and dove into first base to make sure she’d get on base).
I remember the epic 2011 game with Nutley, when Peslak struck out 14 in the ECT semifinal, but lost the game. A week earlier, she had struck out 13 in a county win against Caldwell. I remember her breakout season in 2012, when she finished 26-1 with over 300 strikeouts, an ERA of 0.32 and nearly 90 straight innings of pitching shutout ball.
I will remember the 2013 season where she battled injury after injury and still won over 20 games while pitching to a stellar ERA and still striking out an average of 10 per game.
I’ll remember saying ‘get your popcorn ready’ whenever Peslak pitched.
I’ll remember the back-to-back ECT championships, SEC titles and state sectional crowns. Most of all, I’ll remember a kid who couldn’t have been nicer, win or lose, a young lady who received the Men of Essex’s most esteemed award and will play at Hofstra this fall, while pursuing a degree in Law.
Hard to believe the high school days are about over, Secretariat.
Thanks again to KJ, Gabby, Jenna and The Stud for a great four years.