BERNARDSVILLE, NJ — Inspired by the interest generated in a statewide baseball tournament this summer, Bernards High School softball coach Leslie O'Connor was motivated to come up with a summer softball tournament on a smaller scale.
With the entire spring high school sports season having been wiped out by the pandemic restrictions, O'Connor became the guiding force behind a Somerset County softball tournament that will take place in August.
On Aug. 10-11, Somerset County will host an eight-team county tournament, giving recently graduated members of the Class of 2020 across the county their chance to have some proper closure to softball careers that were unexpectedly cut short in the spring.
"When things were starting to open back up, baseball started that Last Dance tournament with a lot of publicity, and I thought maybe we could do something on a smaller scale with softball," O'Connor said. "I e-mailed all the coaches in the county to see if there was initial interest, and the response had a decent showing. As people started to reach out to their players, anybody that was able to get a roster together would be able to enter. One of our teams as of right now about 90 percent confirmed, and one will be a co-op team."
The process of finding a field was a challenge, since many boards of education around Somerset County still have not indicated when their athletic facilities will be reopened. The tournament will be held in Bridgewater at the North Bridge Street complex.
"We are holding this in August because we wanted to avoid conflicts with travel team schedules and gradations," O'Connor said. "We are staying with all the safety protocols in place right now. With eight teams total, we'll have two days of games, it will be pool play, and every team is guaranteed three games."
O'Connor's Bernards High team includes five players who just graduated last month. They were looking forward to a promising spring season and were actually on a team trip in Florida when the pandemic was declared.
"When this broke, we were actually in Disney at spring training, so we were fortunate enough to get a few games in as a team and got a taste of what the season would have been, only to have it taken away," said O'Connor, who has been Bernards' varsity coach for 15 years. "It was hard for them, especially the seniors. We had five dedicated seniors for four years. We were really on an upswing and looking forward to the work the seniors put in. They got robbed of that."
The five Bernards graduates who will be taking the field in August will be Callie Hunnewell, Riley DeMarrais, Shannon Harzula, Bri Harzula and Jesse Prusina.
Of her seniors, O'Connor said:
"Callie Hunnewell, our right fielder, is a slapper. She is a very speedy player, our captain, and she hits in the two spot in lineup. She has a great attitude.
"Riley DeMarrais, our first baseman, works really hard. She hits in the five spot in batting order. She's a power hitter and a great defensive first baseman who picks the ball well.
"Our catcher, Shannon Harzula, does a really good job behind plate. She blocks the ball really well and is great defensively.
"Her twin sister, Bri Harzula, plays shortstop. Missing the spring season was a real loss for her, because she tore her ACL last summer and got cleared for softball after missing field hockey and basketball season as a senior. She batted .800 on our Florida trip. She was gonna have a good season.
"Jesse Prusina, an outfielder for us, has been in the program all four years and is a very dedicated player."
O'Connor, who gave credit to Bridgewater-Raritan varsity coach Sandy Baranowski for arranging to have North Bridge Street as the site of the two-day tourney, said, "All the coaches have been just very supportive and positive.Finding fields was the first step. Making sure that every kid is going to get playing time, and that this is an extremely positive experience for our athletes, is what's most important."