Cedar Grove’s sixth seed in the Essex County Tournament was mainly a result of the team’s slow start to the season.
But head coach Nicole Velardi’s team has been playing well of late, and the Panthers, behind the clutch pitching of Kelly Toomey and a huge two-run double from Olivia Spinella, surprised third seeded Nutley, 2-1, on May 14, in Nutley.
Cedar Grove (13-10) will take on second-seeded West Essex in a semifinal on May 20, at Ivy Hill Park. West Essex swept the Panthers in the regular season, but, as was the case against Nutley, the analogy of beating a team three times in a season applies again.
The Panthers missed out on the semifinals last year, and last appeared in the finals, in 2014. Cedar Grove’s last championship came in 2010. The program has been a regular in the ECT’s Final Four, over the past decade, beginning with the outstanding teams coached by Rob Stern.
Since Stern led the ’10 team to the crown, Cedar Grove has been to the semifinals in 2011, 2013 and 2014, under two other coaches. Velardi is the team’s fifth different head coach in the last six years, having taken over prior to the 2016 season.
Velardi made a key decision early in the second inning, when her starting pitcher was struggling with the strike zone. Velardi sent Toomey into the game, with Cedar Grove trailing, 1-0, and the sophomore went on to pitch a beaut, throwing shutout ball for 5 2/3 innings.
“Toomey has the experience,” said Velardi. “She pitched in the state championship game last year (when Cedar Grove won the Group 1 title), and she’s mentally tough. She just goes out there and makes good pitches. Our starter is such a talented kid, and we’re confident in her, but she was struggling and we can’t have walks dictate the game. You can’t give teams, especially as good as Nutley, a free pass with walks.”
Velardi’s upbeat personality also seemed to have an effect on the Panthers. Even though Cedar Grove trailed, 1-0, on the road, against a team that had dominated it in the previous two games, by a combined score of 13-1, the team was extremely upbeat in its dugout during the game.
“We try and have fun, and keep it loose,” said Velardi. “When we fell behind early, I told them, we have to get runs, anyway, so go after it. I liked the way we were swinging the bats. (Nutley pitcher) Emily (Holden) is so tough. She’s an outstanding player. We were making outs early, but hitting the ball hard, and that made me feel good. We were also playing good defense.”
One of Velardi’s assistant coaches is her dad, Pete. Nicole’s older sister, Jackie, who coaches at Caldwell University, also helps her younger sister, when she can.
“It’s great having both of them with me,” said Nicole.
Cedar Grove went ahead with two runs in the fifth, as Spinella drove in Sam Brancato and Daniella Cordasco, each of whom had drawn a walk.
The Panthers are very young, with just one senior in talented Kailey Weinstein, four juniors, including Brancato and Cordasco, seven sophomores and a pair of freshmen.
“We’ve got talent,” said Velardi. “I have a lot of confidence in our kids. We’re looking forward to playing a great team in West Essex on Friday night.”