SOUTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. -- The South Plainfield High School (SPHS) varsity softball team had an awesome regular season last spring, and will look to duplicate the results -- and then some -- in 2017.
South Plainfield finished 25-6 (15-1 in Greater Middlesex Conference - White Division play) advancing all the way to the GMCT and North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 finals. Head coach Don Panzarella earned his 700th career win on May 14th against North Brunswick and the Lady Tigers held a whopping 19-game winning-streak from April to early May and looked like they couldn’t be stopped.
But, they eventually were, and came up on the losing end of their two championship games, leaving bitter tastes in their mouths. South Plainfield also lost key stalwarts and production both offensively and defensively to graduation in shortstop Meghan Hughes, first baseman Naomi Nieves, leftfielder Kayla Rivera, and designated hitter Nicole Gerardi.
Hughes flashed the leather with dazzling plays and displayed a strong arm all while batting .339 for her career with 57 RBIs and 119 hits. Nieves showed off her stretching ability while keeping her foot on the bag to help put out runners and Rivera came through in big spots including an over the shoulder snowcone catch near the outfield fence in the seventh inning of the GMCT semifinals to keep the game tied at that point before the Tigers came through in the 10th.
Despite losing the four seniors from a year ago, Panzarella returns the bulk of his roster, including the six other starters from 2016 in senior centerfielder turned shortstop Caity Hughes, senior catcher Camryn Schaeffer, senior pitcher Katherine “Kat” Vill, sophomore third baseman Jillian Holoboski, junior second baseman MaKayla Sosa, and junior right fielder Jennifer Grasso.
“I’m pretty excited. Anytime you got a core group of players coming back I’m pretty excited,” Panzarella said. “With the spots I did lose someone has to fill them and going to be tough.
“But I think we’re pretty solid. In the couple scrimmages we’ve had, we’ve made a few mistakes, but I think we’ll be alright.”
A speedy leadoff hitter, Hughes, who will take her talents to the outfield at Georgian Court University, sprayed 51 hits in 113 official at-bats for a .451 batting average last spring. The multi-sport star registered 41 runs scored, 25 RBIs, eight doubles, seven triples, six home runs, and 12 walks, and stole six bases as well. She’ll utilize her talents and athletic ability by taking over for his sister at shortstop in the infield where she played when she was younger.
“She’s one of my better athletes,” Panzarella said. “She played there a little bit as a kid. Center is a good position too, but you can’t win without a good shortstop. I hate to do it in her last year, but she’s going to do what’s best for the team right now and she’s doing a good job. I’m looking for big things from her.”
In the circle, Vill was as good as anybody in Middlesex County -- and the state -- winning 23 games with a 1.44 ERA. Vill pitched 200.1 innings while allowing only 48 runs (32 earned) and 26 walks. The right-hander struck out 156 batters as a junior, 167 as a sophomore, and 123 as a freshman for 446 so far in her soon-to-be four-year career. She currently holds a 61-16 record. At the plate, Vill mustered a .355 batting average with three home runs, 32 RBIs, and 39 total hits last year.
“It’s awesome,” Panzarella on what it means to have an ace like Vill. “She has three years of experience coming in and the kind of competition and tournaments we played in and she faced over the three years is only better for us.”
Behind the dish, Schaeffer provided a steady presence with 33 hits, 19 RBIs, 11 doubles, two home runs, and a .355 batting average herself. As a freshman, Holoboski racked up 39 hits, 21 RBIs, eight doubles, one home run, and a .388 batting average.
According to Panzarella, senior Angela Sanchez will take over for Rivera in left field and sophomore Catherine DeLair is slated to roam the grass in center field. At first base, a battle lingers on between freshman Cameron Marks and sophomore Rachel Rokicki. Sophomore catcher Julie Davis is fighting for the designated hitter spot as well.
With the additions of the young talent and all the firepower that is back, the goals remain the same for Panzarella’s squad.
“We definitely want to win the GMC-White Division,” said Panzarella, who is third in the state with 706 career wins. “The majority of our games will be played within the white division and it’s a good division. So our goal is to win that again and then we want to be in that county final again. There’s no reason we can’t be back in the county and sectional again this year.
“But, you gotta do everything right. You need a break here and there. We have a bunch of kids back and as long as the young players mold into the spots and do a good job I think we’ll be fine.”
South Plainfield gets things going April 3 at North Brunswick at 3:45 p.m.