Teammates, friends (and) memories to last a life time.
That’s how Belleville, NJ native and Caldwell University’s Jackie Velardi described the evening in which she, along with her teammates from that school’s highly successful softball team from 15 years back, were inducted into the Caldwell University Hall of Fame.
The ceremony took place on April 26, with most of the players from the 2004 squad returning for a special night. In addition to the ’04 squad, the team’s head coach Dean Johnson was also inducted, as was the starting catcher, Danielle Guerra.
Jackie Velardi takes in a special moment with members of the 2004 Caldwell University softball team. ‘J.V.’ is pictured front row, third from right. (Photos courtesy of Jackie Velardi. Click on picture for larger image)
“It was great to reunite with my 2004 championship team,” said Velardi, a 2003 graduate of Belleville High, where she was an All-State player and helped the 2001 team win a state title for coach Carl Corino and the Bucs. “That was a year I will never forget, and a group of people that I will always share this special memory with. It’s been 15 years since we were all together and it felt like yesterday that we were at practice, getting in the red ready to run sprints (with a laugh).
“So many laughs and good times reminiscing of the past. Practices, games, van rides, Florida trips, championships and just good old college life.”
Velardi was recruited to (then) Caldwell College by Johnson. She was immediately a part of a tremendous team, and that’s saying something, considering Johnson has won over 800 games as a head coach at C.U. and it’s not easy to crack the starting lineup as a freshman.
“Being apart of something like this is hard to explain,” said Velardi, who after her playing career has served as an assistant to Johnson for the last 11 years. “The bonds, the friendships, the ups and the downs, the celebrations and the disappointments, the championships and the heartaches. We did it all together, and it’s something that we will share for a lifetime.”
Caldwell U. softball coach Dean Johnson and Jackie at the Hall of Fame celebration on April 26. (Click on photo for larger image)
As Velardi said, the 2004 season was special. The Cougars were 45-7 and won the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference’s (CACC) regular and post-season championship. From there, the team won an NCAA regional title and advanced to the NCAA, Division 2 World Series, in Florida, for the first, and thus far, only time in program history.
“We played 52 games together, and only lost seven,” said Velardi. “That’s pretty incredible. We couldn’t be stopped in the conference tournament and we made it look easy in the regionals. We made a run at the World Series, but fell short in the end. We were talking about that last game in the World Series at the dinner the other night. And it still hurts after all these years.”
At the World Series, Caldwell played three games, with all ending in a 1-0 decision. The Cougars were 1-2 in the Series, losing the last game on an absolutely awful call by the umpire. Caldwell’s Anna Dahl appeared to hit a long 2-run homer over the left field fence. Somehow, the opposing left fielder fell over the fence and was credited with a catch that was clearly not made.
(Trust me, I was at that game in Florida in 2004 and it was a terrible call).
“The ball that was never caught,” said Velardi. “It still makes me shake my head.”
Jackie has enjoyed her role as an assistant coach at C.U. One of her favorite recruits, of course, would be her sister, Nicole, a 2010 Belleville High grad, who also enjoyed a tremendous playing career on the collegiate level.
Jackie Velardi (right) and her younger sister Nicole flank head coach Dean Johnson. (Click on photo for larger image)
Nicole Velardi is now the head softball coach at Cedar Grove High School and led the Panthers to a state championship in 2017 and an Essex County Tournament crown last year. Nicole and Jackie’s dad, Pete Velardi is an assistant coach at Cedar Grove.
Two years earlier, Nicole was an assistant at Cedar Grove when that team won the program’s first state title in 36 years.
As far as Johnson’s induction, Velardi was elated.
“Coach Johnson was also inducted on his own,” said J.V. “That was well deserved, and made that part of the night special. Dean works so hard, day in and day out, to make the Caldwell softball program what it is. And to see him get the honor he deserves was amazing. I have been his assistant for 11 years and I don’t know anybody that can put the time and effort in, like he does.
“Sometimes I question if he is human (she laughed). He coaches softball in the fall, coaches basketball in the winter and is back on the softball field in March. In the summer, he’s out recruiting. I don’t know what Caldwell University softball would be without Dean Johnson.”
Jackie and Nicole are both enjoying success as softball coaches. They both went to Belleville High and later, Caldwell University.
“I’m proud of what Nicole is doing at Cedar Grove,” said Jackie. “And I’m really happy with what I’ve been able to accomplish at Caldwell.”
Congrats, J.V. ! Well deserved.