NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ - The New Providence High School Softball team will be counting on its determination and timely contributions within its lineup when it makes its first appearance in the Union County Tournament Finals this Saturday at 2 p.m. at Kean University. The Lady Pioneers (12-4), winners of 8 straight games face the defending champion and top seeded Lady Highlanders from Governor Livingston High School (19-2) in what promises to be a highly spirited and contested game between the neighboring rivals.
Perhaps the only people not surprised with the sixth seeded Lady Pioneers making their first trip to the UCT Finals in the program’s 37 year history are the coaching staff and members of the team; many of whom have played softball together since the 6th grade. New Providence will look to avenge a 10-0 defeat at the hands of the Highlanders in last year’s UCT semi-final.
Entering her 13th year at the helm, Coach Kelly Villa feels the Lady Pioneers are prepared to take another swing at Goliath on what has been a wild ride for her club. This past weekend, New Providence knocked off the third seeded Blue Devils from Westfield 2-1 on Friday night and then came back from a 4-0 deficit to second seeded Cranford Cougars for a thrilling 5-4 victory on Saturday.
Jenna Madden, the Pioneers centerfielder and leadoff catalyst reflected back to their quarter and semi-final upsets in Linden, “We know we’re a Group 1 school and because of that, no one expected us to get past Westfield let alone Cranford last weekend.”
“They are two outstanding teams. But we feel we are good enough to compete with any team out there and as long as we believe that, and believe in each other, we know we’re going to make a statement about New Providence Softball before the season is done,” Madden added.
The team opened the UCT with a 3-0 win over Linden which set up their Friday night showdown with a highly regarded team from Westfield in the opener of a quarterfinal doubleheader at Flanagan Fields in Linden. The Blue Devils scratched out a run against New Providence ace right-hander, Cassandra Squeri to break out on top. However Madden ignited a 6th inning Pioneer rally as she beat out a leadoff bunt and then raced to third on a hustling play following an error. Fellow table setter, Alex Esposito put down another bunt and both runners came around to score on an RBI ground out from Freshman Kelsey Quinn and a sacrifice fly by Squeri, who scattered 4 hits and struck out 6 for the win.
Saturday’s match up pitted Cranford’s Julie Siragusa versus Squeri in a battle of ace right-handers. A scoreless duel quickly unraveled as Cranford’s Melissa Moreno took Squeri deep for a two-run homer and the Cougars added a pair of runs in the 5th to go in front to a commanding 4-0 advantage.
Things looked dim for the Pioneers; after all they were facing a stingy pitcher in Siragusa, one of the state leaders with 11 victories, and hadn’t really shown much offense to that point. But as they entered the 6th inning, the same inning they scored the decisive runs in their win over Westfield, one of the New Providence parents stood up and made a bold prediction.
“New Providence will win this game 5-4”, proclaimed Alan Squeri, the man responsible for developing many of the current starters over the past 8 years within PAL Softball in New Providence, “and they’ll do it in 7 innings.”
And just like that, Quinn hit a bomb that narrowly missed leaving the yard for a double and Squeri followed with a single to left and the Pioneers were in business. Quinn scored on an error and Squeri came into to score on a ground out cutting the deficit to two bringing Suzie Gargiulo to the plate with two on and two out. Gargiulo ripped an 0-2 pitch one hop off the right field fence for a triple to tie the game, and newcomer Christy Shaw looped a single over the infield to plate the lead run.
Now the job of holding the lead was in the capable right arm of Cassandra Squeri, but Cranford was not going to go quietly and “team tightrope” was going to have to come up with some more drama to put the game away. Cranford loaded the bases in both halves of the sixth and seventh inning but each time, Squeri and the Pioneer defense bent but didn’t break. So when Squeri snared a line drive for the final out, the Lady Pioneers and their faithful fans went into celebration mode.
“Every game has provided an opportunity for someone else to step up, and today it was Suzie and Christy,” said Coach Villa, “this is only our third trip ever to the semi-finals and our girls never gave up.”
As they go for their ninth consecutive win, they will rely upon the timely hitting from senior Nicole Saitta along with juniors Amelia Eckert, Kaylin Ricciardi and Samantha Squeri. Ricciardi has played a stellar shortstop and has combined with Esposito at second base nicely. Saitta leads the team in homeruns while managing the hot corner. Eckert and Samantha Squeri hold down the corner outfield slots and have the ability to move runners over and keep innings alive with their eye at the plate.
As Villa remarked, this is a New Providence team that has emerged as one of the top teams in the school’s history. A team who reached the Sectional Finals for the first time last season, and one who’s made two of the program’s three UCT final four appearances. With Saitta as the only senior, they have relied upon youth and feistiness which has kept them in every game and makes them difficult to contend with. It’s been a ‘no heros’ approach for the Pioneers; a formula that has a new player stepping out into the spotlight to lift the team every day.
“Every good team is strong up the middle and we’re no different”, Madden provided. “For us to beat GL, we will need to do the little things and continue to get contributions from everyone.”
Saturday’s final against Governor Livingston will provide New Providence with another opportunity to prove Union County that they can handle the heavyweights.