SOUTH PLAINFIELD -- Thirty-eight seniors from the Greater Middlesex Conference all came together after competing against each other all season long Tuesday night just days before their graduation commencements for the GMC Softball Coaches Association All-Star Classic at Pony/Pitt Street Park in South Plainfield.
The players split between the Pink and Black teams, including South Plainfield’s own shortstop/center fielder Caity Hughes, pitcher Katherine Vill, and catcher Camryn Schaeffer who were all on the Black squad. Tigers head coach Don Panzarella, who is second in the state in all-time wins with 732 managed the Black team, while South Brunswick’s Heather Wells coached-up Pink.
And at the end of the nine-inning affair on the hot and muggy night full of smiles and laughter, it was Pink who outlasted Black thanks to a four-run top of the eighth.
“Yesterday was a little weird being with so many amazing players,” Hughes said referencing her appearance in the talent-packed N.J. Pride Super 36 All-Star Game which took place on Monday at Ivy Hill Park. “It was an awesome feeling to be there with them. This game was so much fun. You just kind of have to enjoy it.”
After Sayreville’s Kelly Duffy pitched the sixth and seventh innings without much effort striking out four of the seven batters she faced for the Black team, she ran into some trouble in the top of the eighth. South Brunswick’s Haley Grossi led-off with a walk, then back-to-back singles by Jaime Klemas (South Brunswick) and Alex Steele (Dunellen) make it 6-4. Later, Edison’s Bianca Newsom hit a soft two-RBI single which just nipped the right field line to tie the game at 6-6. Brooke Bandola of Metuchen then hit the deciding RBI single to score Catie Koenig of Mother Seton.
Garrick earned the win tossing four innings while fanning nine. Duffy took the loss.
It looked like the Black team would take the game with six unanswered runs -- including four in the bottom of the seventh -- after trailing 3-0 after four. In the seventh, Pink’s Mackenzie Garrick struck out five batters in the frame, but three of them reached on passed balls. The big blow in the inning came off the bat of Hughes who blasted a two-run home run over the center field fence to put Black up 6-3 at that point after two other runs already scored.
“It was an amazing moment. I definitely wanted to hit one,” said Hughes, who went 1-for-2 with a walk, two RBI, and two runs scored on the night. “I obviously wasn’t prepared to, but it was awesome. It’s good to go out like that.”
Hughes saw time in both the outfield and at shortstop in the game, something she did based on team need this season for South Plainfield. The speedster hit .505 with 54 hits, 44 runs scored, 26 RBI, 11 triples, six home runs, six doubles, 22 stolen bases, and 15 walks in 2017, helping Tigers go 27-5. South Plainfield fell in the GMC Tournament final to Wells’ Vikings, but flipped the page and won the NJSIAA Group 3 title and participated in the first ever softball Tournament of Champions. They were also crowned North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 victors along the way.
In her stellar four-year career on the softball field, Hughes became the school’s all time hits leader with 172. She finished with a .438 batting average and amassed 139 runs scored, 78 RBI, 29 triples, 21 doubles, 12 homers, 42 walks, and 39 stolen bases.
This past season, Hughes shared captain status with Vill and Schaeffer, who all had remarkable careers in green as well. Vill left her mark with a school-record 85 wins from the circle. She also struck out a whopping 649 batters in her four years to only 144 walks. She also came out on the losing end only 20 times. In the GMC All-Star Game, Vill however gave up three runs with two of them being earned -- including a solo home run to Steele -- while striking out four in five innings.
Schaeffer, who battled an ankle injury in the postseason, injured her arm and hand trying to make a lunging tag at home plate, but brushed it off. The standout backstop rounded out her Tigers’ journey batting .340 totaling 108 hits, 84 RBI, 69 runs scored, 33 doubles, and four home runs.
Both Vill and Schaeffer, who have spent so much time together on the field, went 0-3 from the plate in the game, waved to each other before warmups at the start of the inning, and played pitch and catch together for the final time. Schaeffer is off to continue her academic and athletic career Kean University while Vill will do the same at Dickinson College.
And for the multi-sport athlete Hughes, who also finished No. 1 in all-time goals scored in field hockey in the fall and No. 1 in steals in basketball in the winter, she’s off to Georgian Court University on a scholarship.
When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Hughes just said she hoped to make an impact. She did that and then some. And having now played her final high school game of any kind, the tireless Hughes got choked up a little bit when asked for her thoughts on the matter.
“I’m going to miss it so much,” she said. “I don’t even like thinking about it honestly. I get emotional. I definitely want to leave my name (in high regards). I played all kinds of different sports. It would be nice to be remembered as one of the best players ever. It’s been awesome playing here and I will miss it a lot.”