CEDAR GROVE, NJ - The Cedar Grove Softball Team heads into 2018 with a target on their back after winning a state championship last year, but the squad hopes that its veteran leadership will pave the way for another successful campaign.

“People are not going to give us their ‘C’ game so if you’re not coming out with your ‘A’ game everyday you’re going to get beat.  Everyone is going to give us their ‘A’ game so I think we need to prepare and play how we need to play,” said Head Coach Jackie Velardi.

Competing in a conference and county that boasts some of the toughest competition in the state, the group knows it has a tough task ahead of them. They have elected to focus on the minor details before setting lofty goals for their squad.

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“We don’t really look too far ahead, what we do is we go day by day, we set goals each day, we want to have good at bats, we start off very small,”  Velardi said.

The Panthers will rely on veteran leader Ava Mandala in the outfield. The senior will man the centerfield position while setting the table as a leadoff hitter. Last year Mandala batted .275 and scored 19 runs while adding seven stolen bases out of the top of the order.

“[Mandala] is a good leadoff for us [because] she’s fast, I’m hoping she can go out and especially for all my seniors to go out with a bang this year and just perform,” said Velardi.

After a successful 2017 season the group will rely heavily on their other seniors to provide the spark for another championship season this year. Kelly Toomey, Micaela Kennedy, Ava Fernandez and Kali McCabe will each look to duplicate their efforts from last season. Last year the  quartet combined for 38 runs batted in and 34 runs scored. While Kennedy and Fernandez will most likely play second and first base respectively the other two are being moved around the diamond for optimal efficiency offensively in the lineup.

“We have to score runs, that’s how we’re going to win and with Mia Faieta on the mound two runs will make us feel comfortable.  We have to find a way to score runs and I think my one through nine will be more experienced this year, have better at bats and we can definitely do that,” said Velardi.

Cedar Grove will head into this season with the circle locked down as junior Faieta returns to the squad. Last year Faieta tallied multiple perfect games and pitched to a 20-8 record with over 380 strikeouts.

“Humble is the best word to describe her.  Her mentality is that last year those wins aren’t going to carry over for me, those strikeouts aren’t going to carry over for me..,what she has to do is put in the work again this year and how she’s been working I think she’s going to be unbelievable again,” Velardi added.

Joining Faieta will be a familiar face in backstop Julianna “Jules” Cicala. Last season Cicala managed to drive in 11 runs in just 59 plate appearances as a freshman. The chemistry between the two will undoubtedly aid the squad in getting critical outs in 2018.

“[Cicala] will be a sophomore now and I told her last year she was a baby, but now she’s not a baby anymore and I told her she has to step up and show her leadership behind the plate because she’s a big part of our team, her and [Faieta],” said Velardi.

Sophomore Gianna Kubu will round out the expected list of starters for Cedar Grove this season. Kubu was solid as a freshman scoring 16 runs while driving in an additional three on her own.

Cedar Grove will have an open competition over the next week to round out the opening day roster. A group consisting of three juniors, three sophomores and four freshman will compete for playing time this season.

“After only getting in two scrimmages it’s tough, I really don’t have a set idea [I’m hoping] by the end of next week we’ll really know,” said Velardi.

The Panthers will look to answer their lineup questions fast -- Cedar Grove will begin their title defense against perennial powerhouse Mount St. Dominick at home on Monday April 2.

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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