By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Before the 2014 high school softball season began, Kearny head coach Jimmy Pickel thought he had the makings of a good team.
“We had our top pitcher (Caralynne Rivera) and some of our main players back,” said Pickel, who is in his fifth season as the head coach of the Kardinals. “I thought things would go well.”
But Pickel never anticipated the Kardinals snapping off 10 straight victories and catapulting themselves to the top of the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League standings. “I didn’t things would go this well,” said Pickel, whose team started the season with three straight losses, then won 10 straight before falling to St. Dominic Academy of Jersey City last Friday.
Pickel was asked why there was such an improvement from last year, when the Kards won only 12 games for the entire season.
“I think basically it’s because of the work they put in during the offseason,” Pickel said. “The kids played a lot in the summer and fall to get ready for this season. They put in a lot of work on their own during the offseason. They went to speed training and took lessons. I think it’s because they did a lot of out-of-season work.”
When the season began, the Kards dropped consecutive games to Hoboken, Lyndhurst and Hackensack.
“After the three losses, it wasn’t like they put their heads down and felt sorry for themselves,” Pickel said. “They knew that they made some mistakes that were correctable. In the case of Hackensack, every ball they hit just found a place to fall for a hit. We had three losses, but we kept it positive.”
The Kardinals then defeated St. Dominic to get their first win.
“It was a great game and everyone felt better about themselves,” Pickel said. “We were able to keep ourselves in games and won 10 in a row.”
What has also helped the Kardinals is depth at pitching – young depth at that.
Rivera, just a sophomore, returns to the circle. She was a game competitor last year as a freshman and has only improved.
“I think because Caralynne knows she doesn’t have to pitch every game, she’s even more reliable,” Pickel said.
Freshman Sydney Pace is the Kards’ other pitcher. Although Rivera still gets the bulk of the workload, it’s refreshing to have two quality hurlers.
“Sydney was definitely a good addition,” Pickel said. “She’s come in further along than most freshmen. She has experience. We knew what we had with both of them and that’s been a big help.” Junior Arianna Scrimo is the team’s catcher.
“She’s done a real good job catching and handling the pitchers,” Pickel said.
Junior Amanda DeSousa is the first baseman who has stepped up nicely after spending last season with the junior varsity.
“She leads the team in RBI with 13,” Pickel said. “She’s doing a nice job.”
Second base duties are being shared by two seniors, namely Kelly Wilkinson and Lacey Burton, as well as Pace.
“It’s really hard to juggle when you have three in there,” Pickel said. “Wilkinson and Burton are now splitting most of the time.”
Junior Daniella Echevestre is the team’s starting shortstop. Echevestre played shortstop last season, gaining valuable experience.
Sophomore Laura Vilar is the team’s third baseman. Vilar leads the team with hits (17) and doubles (six).
“At the beginning of the year, Laura didn’t have a position,” Pickel said. “We moved her to third base and she hasn’t come out of the lineup.”
Senior Spiridoula Dimou is the starting left fielder.
“She’s really improved with her defense,” Pickel said of Dimou. “When she first started with us, she had a tough time in the outfield, but now, she’s doing an outstanding job. She’s also developed as a slap hitter.”
Dimou leads the Kardinals with seven stolen bases.
Nicole Kelly, the soccer standout, returned to the softball diamond after not playing last year and is the Kardinals’ starter in centerfield.
“She’s really helped us tremendously,” Pickel said. “She is someone who was out there in center before and knows what she’s doing. With her speed, once she gets the ball on the ground, no one is going to throw her out.”
Rivera sees time in right field, along with senior Elizabeth Marflak. Pace and Rivera also share duty as the team’s designated hitter.
“It depends on the situation and who’s pitching,” Pickel said.
So the Kardinals are in the thick of the fight for the league title, not to mention the upcoming Hudson County Tournament, which will be seeded later this week. With no true favorite among the county teams, the Kardinals could very well come away with the top seed.
“We’re playing well,” Pickel said. “We’re playing confidently and the girls believe in each other. Things are going pretty good right now.”
And definitely better than expected.