April 1 marks the official opening of the 2014 high school softball season in New Jersey. It’s what I like to call the fastest six weeks of the school year, as there are three to four games, per week, for some teams between now and mid May.
And since it’s such a fast season, you need race horses (AKA studs) to reach that finish line. So, as the horse racing season nears, my usual analogy of famous thoroughbreds from yesteryear will take center stage when talking about some of my favorite Essex County teams.
As my friend Anthony Larezza often says, if you want, your season will be over before Memorial Day. And he’s right. But between now and then, there will be some exciting games.
Since I cover Essex County, thought it would be fun to do some pre-season rankings heading into the season opening games tomorrow. Trust me, these are just educated guesses, based on last year’s results and some of the key returning players. So, hopefully no one is offended, it’s just fun, and here goes with my top 10 in Essex.
I know, Jess Peslak and Rachel Wasilak are now playing college softball, but until someone beats them in the county, they’re still number 1. The Lancers are 35-1 the past two seasons in combined Super Essex Conference and Essex County Tournament action. And don’t forget, Kylie McLaughlin (Seattle Slew) is back as the centerfielder and leadoff hitter. The Big Green Machine yet again? We shall see.
2-Mount St. Dominic
You got a few studs there, too, especially in the pitching circle with Sam Platt and Olivia Gemma. The Mount is the Mount, a talented, hard-working team. They’ll be tough to beat and if Gemma plays to the level she did last season, especially late in the year, watch out.
Spectacular Bid, AKA Carly Anderson, may be the best pitcher in the county this year. The Raiders had a good month of March, including 11 games in Florida, and they’re fired up to bring back the county title it last won in 2011. If they hit enough, they could move up a few spots in the rankings.
Head coach Andrea Mondadori has a very talented team. The Knights always find a way to compete in the rugged SEC American Division. Their battery is very good and this team can hit. Rose Pezzuti is the real deal and pitcher Jenny Shaw doesn’t make many mistakes. Some freshmen could make a big difference, too. West Essex has struggled, however, against the county’s elite, over the past few years, albeit in close games. West Essex opens the 2014 season, at home, against Livingston on April 1. We should know something right away.
It could be their year in the SEC Liberty Division. Newark Academy has also played well in the county tournament, including an appearance in the ECT Final Four two years ago. If the pitching holds up, don’t be surprised to see Sergio Rodriguez’s team making a deep run in the ECT and later in Non-Public B. This team can hit the ball and they’ve got seasoned players on the roster.
Easily, the biggest wildcard in the bunch, so far. If pitcher Cayla Lombardi is ready to go, and all signs are positive, the Chiefs will be a factor in the SEC American, as well as the county. No program has been as successful as Caldwell in the history of the Essex County Tournament, but it’s also been a while since they’ve appeared in a final, too. Caldwell opens the regular season against Nutley. Again, this will be a good early season indicator.
Hmmm…If the pitching is there, the Bengals will compete for the SEC Liberty crown with Newark Academy. Bloomfield has a marvelous player in Victoria Ross, who will play at Manhattan College in the fall. But they lost some very talented seniors from last year’s ECT semifinal squad, including Jenna Orlando, Debbie Mazzeo and Damariz Mercado. If any coach can keep this team in the hunt, it’s Bob Mayer.
Great tradition of winning, and there’s no reason to believe the Panthers won’t be a factor. But they did lose their best player, Gabby Castelli, to graduation. Castelli logged a ton of innings as the team’s top pitcher from 2010-2013 and that’s not easy to replace, especially against the SEC American’s elite teams. Veteran coach Ray VanderMay has led some tremendous teams in a different era. He returned to Cedar Grove last year and had the Panthers to the county semis before a tough loss to Mount St. Dominic.
There was a time that MKA would be in the top five of any pre-season poll, but the program has struggled a bit since 2010. However, the 2014 team has a young, but experienced core of players and head coach Jess Sarfati’s stabilizing presence there could mean this team will have its first winning season since the 2009 team won the Non-Public B championship.
All signs are the Mounties are ready to make a run. Montclair struggled last season, but they did come around late and it was clear the young players were improving with each game. Energetic coach Dan Roberts will assuredly have the Blue and White ready to play.
Like I said, this was just a quick pre-season look to get the juices flowing. Let’s see how things look on Sunday, when the weekly rankings commence, in earnest. We’ll also have some more stud names to add to the mix.
In the mean time, get your popcorn ready !