CEDAR GROVE, NJ - They’re known as “the Avas” of the Cedar Grove High School softball team.  Collectively they account for 174 career hits, 84 RBI, 122 runs scored and 73 stolen bases during their four years playing for CGHS.  They’ve won two state titles together and most recently the Essex County Championship and to top it off they are best friends. Ava Fernandez and Ava Mandala are this week’s Allstate Cedar Grove Athletes of the Week.  The Athlete of the Week is sponsored by Shelby Mobley, Allstate Insurance Agent, 471 Pompton Ave., Cedar Grove. 

Fernandez and Mandala have known each other for years.  Though they went to different elementary schools, they played rec sports together and got to know each other better when they started middle school.

“We played rec together, but then in eighth grade we started playing Suburban softball together and we got really close,” Mandala said.  “And then all through high school we played basketball and softball. We were always together and we were also best friends outside of sports.”

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The best friends and teammates have been lucky enough to win two state championships in their four years at CGHS, with the potential for a third still in the cards, but up until recently a county title had eluded them.  That is until Sunday when Cedar Grove defeated Mount St. Dominic, 1-0, in the Essex County Tournament finals.

“For me and Ava it was a huge deal.  I don’t think some of the underclassmen understood how big it was for us,” Fernandez said.  “We’ve been chasing this since we were freshman and the fact that it was against Mount St. Dominic who has such a great program, was even better.  It means so much more to us because we finally got to come through and get the win.”

“I definitely agree.  We experienced the state championship before, but we never made it to the finals in the counties,” Mandala said.  “We were excited just to be in the game and when it started we were so into it -- we wanted to win. It was huge for us -- it felt like a state championship.”

With a current record of 23-5, the Panthers are on a mission to repeat as state champs and took one step closer with a 9-0 win over Butler on Wednesday in the second round of the NJSIAA North 1, Group 1 state tournament.  For “the Avas” the plan is to take it one game at a time and capitalize on the team’s bond and chemistry.

“We are all so close.  We get along really well even outside of softball and that bring brings us together which is key to our game,” Mandala said.  “That and the fact that everyone wants to be here -- wants to play and wants to win.”

“Everyone on the team is really  into it and very supportive and always cheering each other on,” Fernandez said.  “We all know our role and that we are contributing to the team which is great.”

When asked what the ultimate goal is, they don’t hesitate and answer in unison -- “Winning the Tournament of Champions.”  

“I know the underclassmen are starting to get nervous because they aren’t as used to being part of big games.  Now it’s serious, once we lose we’re done,” Mandala said. “We have high expectations, but we definitely can do it.”  

As they delve into the post season, Fernandez and Mandala are trying to soak it all in, knowing that as seniors any game could be the last game of their CGHS softball careers.  

“I know for us one day it’s going to be the last day so we just want to keep it going.  I just love being part of the team,” Mandala explained. “I want to keep winning and make history.  We’re already county and conference champs so we want to show everyone that we can win it all.”

“I’m going to miss playing with my friends.  Right now I play next to my best friends every day. We’re together 24/7, especially me, Ava and Kali McCabe,” Fernandez noted.  “It’s going to be so different not having this when it ends. I’m definitely going to miss it.”

The Cedar Grove Athlete of the Week is sponsored by Shelby Mobley Allstate, 471 Pompton Avenue, Cedar Grove. 

TAPinto Verona/Cedar Grove  is an online newspaper serving the Townships of Verona and Cedar Grove. TAPinto Verona/Cedar Grove is accredited by the New Jersey Press Association, and is a locally owned news organization serving the community.

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