There’s often the theory that a private high school can attract the best athlete, and that winning should come easy, in return.
At Immaculate Heart Academy in Westwood, there have been many successful athletic programs throughout the years, including the softball teams there.
IHA has put together some marvelous softball teams over the past 15 years. Most recently, the Eagles won a state championship and were named the No. 1 team in New Jersey in 2009 and again in 2012. There were near-misses for state crowns in 2013 and last year.
Through it all, head coach Anthony LaRezza seems to keep a nice balance between making sure the players are having fun, but also instilling a discipline that generally goes hand-in-hand with mental focus.
During an early-season scrimmage on a cold day in March in Nutley, the always candid LaRezza saw a miscue in the field, turned and said to me, “this could be a tough season. This is a young team, and they’re going to make mistakes.”
I said, “well, you’re the coach and something tells me you’ll find a way.”IHA head coach Anthony LaRezza (back row, center) has done, maybe, his best coaching job this year with a young team, on the verge of winning a state title.
Guess what? IHA is playing for the Non-Public A championship, opposite a very good Notre Dame team on June 6, at Kean University, starting at 10:30 a.m.
It will do so on the heels of a very impressive win over Pope John of Sparta on June 3 for the North championship.
IHA can pitch.
Man, can it pitch.
The Eagles have two studs (you know how I like to invoke horse racing into softball) in the rotation in lefthanders Olivia Sprofera and Katie Kudlacik.
Sprofera, (aka Southpaw Slew) a sophomore, hurled a perfect game in the win over Pope John, mixing off-speed stuff with a nasty fast ball to dominate in the North final.
Kudlacik, (aka Southpaw Secretariat) a freshman, throws gas, plain and simple. The ball pops into the catchers glove and the sound of the popping takes an additional second to resonate. And when it does, that pop is clear.
LaRezza has been astute enough this season to use both pitchers in games, and the different styles and approaches to their craft has kept opposing teams off-balance, for the most part.
IHA’s 30-3 record heading into Saturday’s final isn’t just about pitching. The offense is potent and the defense makes plays.
Reese Guevarra, (Former President) Reagan Jones, Emilie Cieslak, Sarah Browning and Victoria Casey have been key contributors. There’s no standout in the lineup, just a lot of well-coached, hard-nosed kids.
When IHA lost its first game of the season to Butler last month in a tournament, the look of disappointment on the players’ faces spoke more of a determination to succeed.
“It was probably good that we lost a few games heading into May,” said LaRezza. “With a team this young, it can help them get more focused.”
After a riveting win over DePaul in the North Non-Public A semifinal, the Eagles lost the following day in the Bergen County Tournament final.
“I wasn’t that concerned with losing the county final,” said LaRezza. “Of course, we wanted to win it, but after the DePaul game, I knew it would be tough to come back in 12 hours and get the same intensity.”
And would you like to guess how many seniors are on this roster?
LaRezza has had some tremendous teams. But, in my estimation, this has been his finest job as a head coach.
He deserves accolades as the state’s top coach in 2015.