When the Super Essex Conference took shape in the fall of 2009, the presumption behind the conference’s formation was to establish some great rivalries within Essex County, putting forth the most competitive foundation for great games, as well as providing an impetus to move up, as a program excelled.
Men like Joe Piro. Steve Jenkins and Lorenzo Sozio, coaches and athletic directors in Essex County, and all high school grads within Essex, recognized the need for good athletic events within the county, in all sports, but also keeping the future just as exciting.
In softball, like most of the other sports, there are four divisions within the conference, with each providing a competitive balance of teams that should do well in games, matches, or meets, against each other. There’s no perfect set up, but the theory that if a program excelled in its conference for two years, it would be ‘promoted’ to the next level, where the competition would escalate, made and continues to make sense.
In 2010, Millburn’s softball team was a state caliber program, and played Nutley in a state sectional semifinal. The team had an All-World shortstop in Alexa Maldonado, who would go on to play collegiately at Notre Dame. But the years that followed saw the program struggle, and with that, it moved down a division in the SEC.
With a not-as-difficult schedule and an improving program, the Millers flourished, winning a conference championship last year, in finishing 23-4. Just a year earlier, in 2014, the team was 7-17.
This year, Millburn hasn’t just won, it has dominated. Entering this weekend’s action, the Millers are 17-1, including a win over an SEC American Division team, Bloomfield, as well as a close 3-2 setback to another SEC American squad, in Nutley. It is well on its way to a second straight SEC Colonial Division title.
And now, as the 11th seed in the county tournament, despite the record, which was unblemished at the time of the seeding meeting, the Millers will venture to sixth seeded Cedar Grove on May 7, for what should be a very interesting contest against another quality American team, as well as a defending state champion.
The strength of a team’s opposition, long a mark in determining the higher seeds in a tournament, has affected Millburn, but coach John Childs’ team will get the chance to continue its quest as an up-and-comer in the county, starting with Saturday’s game against Cedar Grove.
“We’re very happy with the way we’re playing ball right now,” said Childs. “With the county and state tournaments approaching, you want to be playing at your best, and hopefully we’re heading in that direction. We were fortunate to win the program’s first conference championship last year, and our number one goal is to try and defend that title. We still have four conference games remaining.”
Millburn also captured the Wallkill Valley Tournament, on April 16.
“That was another goal we set, because we finished second the previous two years,” said Childs. “The girls played excellent that day, defeating Vernon (4-0) and Wallkill Valley (4-1).
Getting the chance to play SEC teams from the American Division was a big test for the Millers. The team faced Nutley and Bloomfield on April 30, at Nutley, in a four-team tournament setup.
“Obviously, last Saturday was a big test for our team,” said Childs. “I am so proud of how hard the girls played in both games. Taking Nutley to eight innings and having chances with runners in scoring position several times showed our girls that if they can play all three phases of the game (pitching, defense and timely hitting) up to their potential, they give themselves a chance to win.
“We don’t have the pitchers that are going to strike out nine or 10 batters a game. They pitch to contact, so we must play solid defense. We spend the first half of every practice working on skills and drills defensively before we pick up a bat. The pitchers have done a great job of throwing strikes and moving the ball around the strike zone.”
Nutley coach Luann Zullo was impressed with Millburn.
“They’re a good team, “Zullo said. “They hit, pitch and play defense. I was impressed. They’re going to be a tough out in the county tournament.
Despite losing its first game of the season to Nutley on April 30, Millburn had little time to dwell on the setback. Within an hour, it was back on the field to play Bloomfield. Millburn won, 13-3.
“Beating Bloomfield was a big accomplishment for us,” the coach said. “We got down three runs in the top of the first, but the girls came right back to score two and I felt that was huge. From there, they did not look back and swung the bats really well. I’m just really proud of how hard the girls practice and play. They have a lot of fun and are a very close team. We recently had a Senior Day, and it was very emotional since we have seven seniors, five that have been on varsity since their freshman year.”
Millburn also has a trio of hitters who have eclipsed 100 hits in their careers. Anna Mandel, a senior catcher, reached the milestone last May while junior shortstop Rachel Hubertus collected the century mark early this season. A day after Hubertus, senior Jenna Dembner, a pitcher and outfielder, garnered her 100th hit. Chloe Radtke was also closing in on 100.
Through the first 17 games, Hubertus, a phenomenal shortstop, was hitting. 673 for the season and led the team in hits (33), runs scored (49), triples (5), homers (8) and RBI (39). She was also tied for the team lead in doubles, with five.
Dembner had 31 runs scored, 29 hits and a team-leading 16 stolen bases. Mandel had 25 RBI while sophomores Helen Casey and Kaitlyn Miller had 21 RBI each.
Dembner has been the team’s top pitcher, with 43 strikeouts in 49 innings. Julie Levine and Miller have also been outstanding in the circle.
The senior class also features Jessie Finkelstein, Paige Krikorian, Emily Torre and Victoria Jordan. The juniors include Erica Lupiano, Lauren Weissman, Kayla Wolf and Mia Carty. Katy Sheppard, Rachel Horwitz and Emily Fried are part of the sophomore class.