Kearny softball team wins first-ever Hudson County title
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When the 2014 high school softball season began, Kearny High School head coach Jimmy Pickel didn’t know what to make of his team.
“I thought we maybe had a chance to do well,” Pickel said. But the Kardinals stumbled out of the gate, losing three of their first five games.
Then, something magically clicked. The Kardinals won 11 games in a row, defeating some of the top teams in Hudson County.
“When we had the winning streak, that’s when I thought we were pretty good,” said sophomore pitcher Caralynne Rivera. “I thought we had the ability to take it all. I thought we had the talent.”
Sunday morning at the New Jersey City University Gerrity Complex, the Kardinals completed the journey, winning the school’s first-ever Hudson County Tournament championship by defeating Bayonne, 6-4, bouncing back from a 4-0 deficit to do so.
The win came one day after the Kardinals lost to Montclair, 6-2, in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state playoffs.
Pickel was asked if there was a hangover at all after Saturday’s loss.
“I actually don’t think it was a factor,” Pickel said. “As soon as that game ended, we forgot about it. I wasn’t concerned about it. We were ready to play.”
“After that game, we knew we had to let it go,” Rivera said. “We had a bigger opportunity to win the county. I wasn’t going to let that game affect me.”
However, Pickel sensed that something was different with his team.
“They were a little tense early on,” Pickel said. “They got off the bus and I could sense that they were a little nervous. They were on the big stage for the first time.”
Bayonne jumped out to an early 4-0 lead on Sunday.
“There was a lot going through my mind,” Rivera said. “When we were down, 4-0, the one good thing about softball is that the game is never over. That lead was nothing.”
However, as the pitcher, Rivera knew that the pressure was on her.
“Every single time someone came up, I knew that I couldn’t let that person score,” Rivera said.
Pickel kept the spirits up.
“There was never a panic,” Pickel said. “It was still early in the game. We had given them a few runs. Instead of being down, we just knew we had to chip away at that lead.”
The Kardinals scored one run, then another, then received a huge break when a bases-loaded pop up was dropped and enabled the Kards to slice the lead to 4-3.
“I think then even Bayonne changed,” Pickel said. “They weren’t getting any hits. Even Caralynne said, ‘Just get me a few runs and I’ll take care of this.’”
Little did Pickel know that it would be Rivera who would deliver the crushing blow.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Rivera unleashed a bomb to left center field.
“I didn’t think it would go out,” Rivera said. “I thought it would hit the fence.”
But it didn’t. Rivera’s shot eluded the Bayonne centerfielder who did her best to catch the ball. However, Rivera’s blast went over the fence for a two-run homer that gave the Kardinals the lead for good at 5-4.
“That was the best feeling ever,” said the sophomore pitcher Rivera, who had hit one other home run earlier in the season. “I couldn’t explain it. I knew that it gave us a better chance of winning.”
Pickel knew that Rivera had hit the shot heard around Kearny.
“Once she hit it, I knew it was gone,” Pickel said. “I know the sound it makes coming off the bat. It had that sound.”
The Kardinals added an insurance run, giving Rivera a two-run cushion to begin the final inning. She didn’t need it. The Kards had created history.
Pickel credited the defensive work of left fielder Spiradoula Dimou, who made a running catch on a short fly ball with runners on base, and second baseman Kelly Wilkinson, who snared a scorching line drive with the bases loaded.
“Those two defensive plays saved the game for us,” Pickel said. “Once we took the lead, I could sense Bayonne was down.”
Pickel believes that Rivera matured this season as a pitcher.
“She really came on since the beginning of the season,” Pickel said. “I think she wasn’t fine tuned to begin this season. I think it helped having (freshman) Sydney (Pace) to pitch a few games. It helped Caralynne that she didn’t have to pitch every game. Having those games off was for her best interest.”
After Rivera disposed of the Bees in the top of the seventh, the celebration was on.
“It’s amazing,” Rivera said. “It’s so hard to explain how I feel afterwards. I felt we earned it and deserved it. We all worked so hard to get there, so we deserved to win.”
“It’s the first championship game we’ve been to and the first time we won,” Pickel said. “I kind of like playing there and being there.”
As for the euphoria?
“It feels great,” Pickel said. “Everyone thinks of Kearny as being a soccer town. Well, now we’ve won something else. Volleyball came close (the boys’ volleyball team lost to St. Peter’s Prep in the county tournament championship match Friday night), so we had to come through. It’s nice to be able to win something different.”