In a season of challenges, Immaculate Heart Academy overcame one more obstacle, en route to a second straight NJSIAA Non-Public A title and the presumptive nod as New Jersey’s top high school softball team in 2016.
The Eagles (31-1 overall, 30-game winning streak) scored twice in the bottom of the first, then held off a very young, and talented Donovan Catholic team, 2-1, at Kean University, on June 11. IHA won last year’s title, 1-0, when it scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning.
This time, it was a fast start, great pitching, once again, and a stalwart defense which propelled coach Diana Fasano’s team to a title.
Prior to the game, Fasano brought her team together on the left field line and delivered a simple message.
“Get it done,” she said. “Leave no doubt. Leave it all here.”
Fasano had juggled the responsibilities of her job well, keeping the emotion of being head coach, in check, by providing the usual discipline, hard-work and fun her predecessor, the late Anthony LaRezza, had instituted for over a decade.
While she always made it a point about not getting too philosophical, she was somewhat wistful when asked about a possible thunderstorm interrupting her game, upon arriving at Kean U.
“No way,” she said about possible bad weather. “Anthony won’t let that happen.”
And she was right.
From that first scrimmage, against Ridgefield, on March 11, to the final game, three months to the day later, it was a well-orchestrated effort of everyone associated with the program, coaches, parents, alumni, fans and the players themselves.
IHA scored its two runs in the title game thanks to small ball, at its best, Reese Guevarra (Sunday Silence) was hit by a pitch, then went all the way to third when Taylor Kenerson (Point Given) executed a perfect bunt. When Guevarra hustled to third, and beat the throw on a close play, Kenerson was right behind, charging into second, then throwing a distant high five to Guevarra.
Kenerson’s mom, Lisa, who was seemingly clinging to the third fence along the third base line with every play, looked over and said, “I’ve never seen Taylor that fired up so early in a game.”
Another IHA stud, Emilie Cieslak (Tim Tam), a senior, followed with a two-run single, and it appeared that the Eagles could pull away quickly.
But Donovan Catholic, which started at least five freshmen, came to play. This was the team that had eliminated South Jersey powerhouses St. John Vianney and Notre Dame, en route to the title game. And when its starting lineup was introduced, the PA announcer was either identifying a starter as a freshman, or sophomore.
Donovan Catholic pitcher Lindsay Nelson, a freshman, was spectacular, holding IHA scoreless for the remainder of the game, and scattering four hits.
But on the other side of course, was the fourth horse, Olivia Sprofera (Southpaw Seattle Slew), who was dominant early with the strikeout pitch, then worked through a few challenges in the middle innings.
A key play was the marvelous defensive effort of Sunday Silence, when she retrieved a hard hit ball in right centerfield, with IHA leading 2-1, then threw a pea to Point Given, the cutoff at shortstop. The play was so bang-bang, that a Donovan Catholic runner was held at third, instead of trying to score the tying run.
“I knew I had to make a play,” Guevarra said afterward, a big smile on her face. “Once I got the ball to Taylor, I didn’t thing there was any way they’d try to score.”
And in true Southpaw Slew fashion, two runners in scoring position were left stranded.
Slew would work out of a few more jams. Tim Tam made a huge catch at first base to stop one threat, and in the seventh, after giving up a lead off double, Sprofera calmly retired the next three batters, without the runner on second going any further.
Fittingly, the final out was a pop up to Kenerson, who made sure everyone around her knew that this was her ball.
“I saw it coming, and just said, ‘this is mine,'” Kenerson said. “It’s been some kind of season. Unreal.”
When Sprofera was asked after the game if she was concerned about that leadoff double in the seventh, she smiled, and after a fist bump, said, “No.”
And that’s what makes Sprofera, a junior lefty, the great pitcher she was in 2016. Nothing flustered her. And when Fasano referred to her as a ‘horse’ during the season, she was 100 percent correct.
Make that a Triple Crown horse.