The Belleville High School softball team won 13 games a year ago and captured the Super Essex Conference-Colonial Division championship.
As a reward, the Buccaneers have been moved to the tougher SEC-Liberty, where the Lady Bucs will face teams like Millburn, Caldwell, Columbia, Newark Academy and Montclair.
Not an easy task, when you consider that the Buccaneers graduated six seniors from a year ago.
But veteran head coach Chris Cantarella has never been one to back down to a challenge. Tougher schedule, tougher league, tougher times? Not quite.
“It’s going to be extremely challenging, but we’ll be ready,” Cantarella said. “It was really tough not being able to get outside to practice because of the weather. It’s tough to see what we have as a team. We had a host of scrimmages canceled. But we have a good nucleus of girls who played together in the summer. It also helped that last year, all of our programs had success.”
The Lady Bucs will use three pitchers in the early going, with junior Olivia Velez and sophomores Shannon Walsh and Charlotte Colon all vying for time on the rubber.
Walsh is a right-hander, while Colon, the younger sister of Belleville wrestling heroes Filiberto and Justin, is a lefty.
“It would be nice to split the time between two,” Cantarella said. “All three pitchers are different. Shannon throws hard. Charlotte is around the plate more. Olivia doesn’t throw overly hard, but she gets people out. It’s a nice mixture. I think they all need a little self confidence. I’d like to have two. I think having just one starter stunt’s everyone’s growth.”
The catcher is returning starter Cherylann Nicosia, who has been behind the plate for three straight years.
“She started since she’s a freshman,” Cantatrella said of his junior backstop. “She batted .400 for us last year as our No, 2 hitter.”
Nicosia made All-SEC last year.
“She’s just a softball girl,” Cantarella said. “She loves playing softball.”
Senior Alyssa Welter is the first baseman. She played sparingly last season as a junior.
Sophomore Annemarie Smith will get her looks at first base.
“She can play anywhere,” Cantarella said of Smith. “She seriously can play four different positions. And she swings the bat well. She’s doing all the drills all over the field.”
Second base is a battle between juniors Jennifer Garrido and Crystal Medina and sophomore Janelle McCann.
Junior Ariana Ruiz is the team’s shortstop. She can handle all the plays at short.
Sophomore Nathalie Marin is the current third sacker for the Lady Bucs, but she could end up at first base as well.
“She swings the bat very well,” Cantarella said.’
Senior Agustina Garrido is the mainstay in left field.
“She’s a three-year starter out there,” Cantarella said.
Senior Jihan Dabon is the centerfielder. Dabon, the fine point guard for Cantarella’s Belleville basketball team, is another three-year starter for her coach in the spring.
“She can run,” Cantarella said. “She’s been with me ever since she was a freshman.”
The coach and player obviously have a strong relationship.
Sophomore Fiorella Samaniego is the right fielder. She started there last season.
Senior Sydney Gomez and junior Christina Gibson are other players who get considerable playing time this spring.
The Lady Bucs waste little time testing the SEC-Liberty waters, facing Caldwell, Millburn and Montclair right away in the first week of the season. Cantarella should have a good idea by then what he’s working with.
“It’s going to be an interesting season,” Cantarella said.
Does interesting translate to wins and losses? We will have to see.
The Belleville softball team will rely on their senior leaders this season. From left are Alyssa Welter, Mariah Martinez, head coach Chris Cantarella, Chantal Murdock and Agustina Garrido. Photo by Jim Hague
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”