By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
For the last 40 years or so, George Steel has heard all the jokes about his name. And no, he’s not the famous professional wrestler.
“I’ve heard it all the time,” said Steel, a lifetime Kearny resident. “I have to explain that I’m not a Yale professor like he is. Everyone calls me ‘The Animal’ because of him. We have a lot of fun with the name.”
Steel is also a coaching lifer. For years, Steel helped to run the Kearny Generals youth football program. He was also an assistant football coach at Queen of Peace under several regimes, including the state championship team coached by Andy Cerco.
“I’ve been back and forth at Queen of Peace,” said Steel, who also served as an assistant under head coaches Tom Ferriero and Ed Stinson.
For the last few years, Steel has been an assistant football coach at Morris Catholic in Denville.
This spring, Steel took on a different challenge – becoming the head softball coach at Queen of Peace
. “I think this year’s team can be a little more productive than last year’s team,” said Steel, who was an assistant softball coach at QP last year under Mike Flynn. “To be honest, we had only one scrimmage game (in the preseason) because of the weather. We used the first couple of games as practice for the rest of the season.”
With that in mind, Steel isn’t too concerned about the team’s 2-3 start. The Golden Griffins defeated Dwight-Englewood and Harrison, before falling to Secaucus and Lyndhurst last week.
“We scored six runs in the seventh inning to beat Dwight- Englewood,” Steel said. “We hit the ball real well.”
Steel feels that better times are ahead.
“I think when the girls can get on a little bit of a roll,” Steel said, “I think we can compete with anybody. We’re going to do better. I knew the last part of the schedule was going to be tough. I knew we would have a slow start. But we’re now to the point in our schedule where we’ll get some wins.”
Leading the way is senior pitcher Gabby Lombardozzi, a three-year veteran on the mound for the Golden Griffins.
“She’s not overpowering, but she has good control,” Steel said. “She does what I ask her to do. She throws strikes. If she can stay ahead in the count, she’s good. But if she pitches from behind, she gets in trouble.”
The catcher is freshman Ashley Ruivo, who is a rarity behind the dish being left-handed.
“She’s one of the few girls who was willing to go behind the plate,” Steel said. “Gabby picked her. Gabby wanted Ashley to be the catcher. If she gets time behind the plate, she could be a good one. She also has good speed. She’s one of our faster players.”
The first base duties are being shared by a pair of seniors. Senior captain Melissa Gallo has been a hot bat in the early going, batting almost .500.
“She’s hitting the ball well,” Steel said. “She has improved tremendously. She put a lot of time in during the offseason to get better and it’s showed.”
The other senior first baseman is Samantha Martinez, who has been solid offensively.
“She just needs to improve defensively,” Steel said.
Senior Sarah Lopez is the team’s second baseman. Lopez, who is also a part of the famed QP cheerleading squad, is a newcomer to softball.
“She hasn’t played a lot, so she needs a little work,” Steel said of Lopez.
Senior Adrianna Giangregorio and freshman Jane Amadeo are also seeing time at second base. Amadeo has a bright future as a pitcher.
“She’s a good all-around player,” Steel said of Amadeo.
The shortstop is senior veteran Nikki Sammartino, who has been a mainstay there since she was a freshman. Sammartino was an Observer Athlete of the Week last season.
“She’s hitting the ball well, batting better than .600,” Steel said.
Sammartino is headed to Rutgers-Newark in the fall.
Senior Kristen Vitale, another first-year player, is the third baseman.
“She’s doing a good job defensively,” Steel said.
Junior Jamie Nemeth is the Golden Griffins’ left fielder and the team’s fastest player.
“She’s our leadoff hitter and one of the fastest kids I’ve ever seen,” Steel said.
Senior Raychel Piserchia is another captain, along with Sammartino, Gallo and Lombardozzi, and the starter in centerfield.
“She’s one of the best hitters on the team,” Steel said. “She’s also very good defensively.”
A pair of seniors, Tori Fortunato and Kyra Gil, is splitting time in right field.
Senior Dana DeAnni will get a chance to pitch, spelling Lombardozzi, from time to time.
Steel said that he ran into a small obstacle recently, when there weren’t enough capable players to field a competitive junior varsity squad.
“We did a little search in the school and a couple girls came out,” Steel said. “We needed to get more people involved to keep the program moving. We don’t have a feeder program like some of the public schools. Some come to us never having played softball before, so it’s a little bit of a hindrance.”
But the Golden Griffins have survived the tough times and should thrive as the season moves forward.
“The girls are talented,” Steel said. “They’re trying hard and they want to play. As a coach, that’s all you can ask for. You want girls who want to play.”
The Golden Griffins are scheduled to face some of the area’s top competition, like North Arlington and Kearny, in the weeks to come. Steel wants to get his team to the NJSIAA Non- Public B North state playoffs. They will need a few more wins before they can even consider such a lofty perch.