SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - It is a special opportunity to be able to play high school sports alongside one of your siblings. It’s even more special when you get to call two siblings your teammates. But when you take all that into account and add that your mother played for the same coach on the same team decades earlier? Now you’re talking about rarified air.
Meet the Hughes sisters of South Plainfield softball: Shannon, a senior, Meghan, a sophomore, and Caity, a freshman. Known together as “Hughes Incorporated,” they are believed to be the first family to have three siblings playing on the same varsity team at once in South Plainfield High School athletic history.
Making things even more head-scratching for fans of this year’s Tiger squad is that there is a fourth Hughes on the team (though not related): Kaitlyn, a senior. This meant that for many games during the spring, four of the nine batters penciled into manager Don Panzarella’s starting lineup shared the same last name.
“It’s been really fun,” Shannon, the tallest of the trio stated in a measured way. “It’s a great opportunity because we’ve never been able to play on the same team, ever, in all the years we played sports.”
Cheryl Hughes, mother of the three (now the varsity field hockey coach and former Tigers softball star in her own right) takes comfort in knowing her daughters are going through a similar experience that she went through a few decades ago. “It’s awesome because I played for Coach Panzarella and I never would have thought I’d have my girls play for him, also. So it’s been amazing,” Hughes, a SPHS graduate in 1988 said. “It’s special because they all went through the same program I did, and I’m really, really proud of that.”
“It makes me feel old,” Panzarella deadpanned when he was reminded he is coaching second-generation players now.
“Their mom was a great player for me. She did what I asked her to do. She switched positions senior year for me the day before the first game. And these girls (the three current Hughes players) fit the mold. Like their mother and father (Kevin Hughes, SPHS girls basketball coach), they’re all good athletes and they give you 110%. But they’re great kids and that’s what is important,” Panzarella continued. “And it’s nice to know I have players who had a mother play for me. I always wondered who would be first.”
So has playing on the same team for this season brought the sisters even closer together? “Yeah, it’s been good. We’re always texting each other during the day and in school about things,” said Meghan, who also plays field hockey and is by far the most natural at taking interviews.
And though they all agreed that they would rather play on different teams--Meghan said “We get so competitive against each other, so it’s more fun that way”--they know this probably won’t ever happen again. Indeed, this Senior Night, under the lights at Pitt Street Park, was a stark reminder of that. Shannon was honored before the game with a ceremony where she was escorted onto the field by her parents and sisters, a final sendoff for the eleven-time letter winner (in field hockey and basketball, as well as softball) before she heads off to college this fall, maybe never having another chance to call her sisters teammates again.
The sisters got together after a big, 12-2 Senior Night win over JFK-Iselin to pose for pictures, just the three of them, and soak in a special moment.
The girls have heard plenty of stories about their mother’s time as a Tiger, like the switch from outfield to shortstop, a position that Caity says Cheryl had never before played. But their favorite stories are the ones passed down from their mother about what “Coach Panz” used to be like. “She said he was young and more energetic,” Shannon told us. Then Meghan chimed in, joking, “He was more energetic and on top of things. He forgets a lot of things now,” before Caity jabbed the middle sister’s stomach and told her to hush up about their head coach.
Caity, though still trying to carve out her own place amongst the great athletic achievements of her family, was never worried about living up to any expectations. “Going into this year I was kind of nervous,” she admitted. “But I knew that I was going to have a lot of fun because I knew most of the girls, so it was all good. It’s been fun.”
Caity, like Shannon, plays basketball for her father in the winter.
When asked to lend some wisdom to her younger sisters before she prepares to depart for college later this summer, Shannon (a recipient of both academic and athletic scholarships to Rider University where she has committed to play field hockey) did not hesitate: “Take advantage of this. Don’t take any year for granted because it’s going to go by like that,” Shannon said, snapping her finger. “And have fun.”
And what do Meghan and Caity expect from Shannon while she’s away at college? Meghan’s list of demands included not partying too much, coming back to South Plainfield to visit and see some of their games, and write back home. “But I won’t miss you too much,” Meghan said with a smirk to her older sister.
For the three Hughes girls who are bonded by sisterhood as well as athletics, they all knew she wasn’t serious. As the last high school sports season comes to an end, many believe they may have witnessed something that may never occur again in South Plainfield sports: A truly special achievement, by a truly special family.