SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- After bursting on the scene with a fabulous freshman softball season at Union Catholic last year, there was a lot of hype surrounding Justina Benvenuto as she entered her sophomore season.

Benvenuto has more than lived up to all the lofty expectations, both on the mound and at the plate as she has sparked the Vikings to a 6-1 record this spring.

Benvenuto has been dominate on the mound this season with a 7-1 record, 55 strikeouts in 44 innings, two shutouts, one combined shutout, and one no-hitter. And she has delivered several clutch hits at the plate for Union Catholic.

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In UC's season opening 17-1 victory, Benvenuto pitched a no-hitter and slugged a three-run homer in the four-inning game.  

Benvenuto's best pitching performance of the season came when she fired a complete-game 4-0 shutout over defending Group 3 state champion South Plainfield, ranked No. 16 in the state at the time, at UC's Viking Tournament on April 7. The victory over South Plainfield came after UC suffered its only loss of the season to Elizabeth earlier in the day.    

"The South Plainfield game  was the biggest game of the season so far for us,'' said Benvenuto, who also hurled a shutout vs. Union County Conference rival Summit. "I always try to bring it up to another level when I knew it's a really important game.''

As a freshman, Benvenuto was 11-6 on the mound with 124 strikeouts in 98.3 innings, and at the plate she had a .407 average, scored 15 runs, drove in 15 runs, and hit one home run.

Benvenuto, who lives in Berkeley Heights, has worked very hard since last year to take her game to another level.  

"I knew coming back that our team would be even stronger and we were bonding and meshing well as a team, so I felt I needed to show that my potential has grown even more this year,''  said Benvenuto, who already has three home runs, 13 runs batted in and 12 runs scored this season. "Over the winter, I have a net setup in my garage to practice my pitching, and I did a lot drills. And I've really worked on gaining more intensity in practice and I worked hard on gaining more speed on my pitches and being more relaxed at the plate.''

Softball has always been Benvenuto's No. 1 sport.

"My grandfather (Bob Catherwood) got me into softball at a young age and my family is big into baseball and softball,'' said Benvenuto, who works on her game six days a week year-round and plays club softball for the Morris County Belles. "I played a little basketball when I was younger, but softball has always been my sport.''

What are Benvenuto's goals for the rest of the season?

"To just keep working hard and try to help my team win the Conference title and have the best season possible,'' said Benvenuto.