The North Arlington High School softball team fell on some tough times the last two seasons.
The Vikings won just two games last year – and absolutely none the year before.
So as she began her third season as the head coach of the Vikings, Danielle Cibelli was more than ready to enjoy much more success with the Vikings this season.
“We were looking forward to a very big season,” Cibelli said. “We had the addition of some good freshmen. We were ready to move some people around. I thought we had the makings of a pretty good team. The girls were excited. I was excited. It was the earliest we had been outside for practice. The weather was outstanding.”
And there was something else for the Vikings to get pumped up about. The town’s softball facility on Schuyler Avenue was fitted with FieldTurf – much like the James Zadroga Memorial Soccer Complex further on down Schuyler toward Lyndhurst.
“I would say that we were set to be a better team on the turf,” Cibelli said. “The more we got on the new field, the better we got on it. We were able to judge ground balls better. It really was going to make a difference. They were looking forward to it and I was looking forward to it. We were outside the whole week practicing.”
But then, on March 11, the Vikings experienced a sense of “Murphy’s Law” – and we don’t mean Gov. Phil Murphy.
“Murphy’s Law” is an old adage that dates back to the famed author Alfred Holt, who wrote in 1877 that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”
Bingo. Murphy’s Law came out and strangled the optimism of the Vikings in the form of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic that shut down the season abruptly and was officially ended last week by Gov. Phil Murphy’s decree that will kept all schools closed for the remainder of the school year.
“I knew what we had,” Cibelli said. “And I knew it was going to be our best season yet.”
Those were promising words, considering the Vikings posted a dismal 8-51 record over the last three seasons.
“We really had something to look forward to,” Cibelli said.
The Vikings had three pitchers that they could count on this season, namely junior Ashleigh Hall, sophomore Maira Gutierrez and fabulous freshman Shaelyn Morales.
“We were planning to use all three,” Cibelli said. “All had something different to offer our pitching staff. We were trying to keep batters off balance.”
The Vikings had a familiar name that was poised to take over the duties of being the Vikings’ catcher. Incredibly, the new catcher has the same last name as the Vikings’ respected catcher in baseball.
Grace Alho, the younger sister of North Arlington three-sport standout Tony Alho, was all set to become the Vikings’ catcher in softball, much like All-NJIC backstop Tony does for Paul Marcantuono and the NA baseball squad.
“She is a little raw,” Cibelli said of the younger Alho. “But she has the pitchers down. She’s handled the work that we’ve given her. The good thing is that she wants to work. She wants to get better. Having Tony as a role model helps Grace.”
The first baseman was set to be junior Elisa Fernandez, with help from sophomore Lauren Velasquez.
“Elisa has made the good transition to first base,” Cibelli said. “Lauren is a great hitter. She can hit bombs.”
Sophomore Emma Magalhaes would have been the team’s second baseman. She led the Vikings in RBI last season.
“She came onto my radar last year and caught my eye,” Cibelli said. “She is a very disciplined player. She has great work ethic. She also could play shortstop if needed, but she can handle either position.”
Senior Kayla Francisco lost out on the opportunity to be the starting shortstop in her final year with the program. It’s always hardest on the seniors, who miss out on graduations, proms and the rest. Francisco, a fixture with the Vikings since she was a freshman, didn’t get the chance to go out on her terms.
“She’s been a three-year starter,” Cibelli said. “She made the transition from second base to shortstop last year and did a great job. She’s one of the best athletes I ever coached.”
Francisco made Second Team All-NJIC last season.
Sophomore Gabby Kaminsky was back for her second year at third base. Kaminsky had a successful freshman campaign at the hot corner, finishing second on the team behind Magalhaes in RBI.
“She’s a good power hitter,” Cibelli said. “She has a strong arm. She stepped in last year and contributed right away.”
Senior Marissa Burnell was to be the starting left fielder.
“She made the transition from the infield to the outfield,” Cibelli said. “She wanted to get better in the outfield, so she worked hard. She was poised to have a good year at the plate this year.”
Alexa Paparelli is another senior who would have been the starter in centerfield.
“She was our catcher last year,” Cibelli said of Paparelli. “We moved her to the outfield because of her arm. She also has some good speed. She could run through a wall for you.”
Junior Katelyn Molina would have been the starter in right field.
“She’s a very versatile player,” Cibelli said. “We could play her in all three outfield spots. She worked hard on her hitting. She has a very quick bat.”
Velasquez would have seen a lot of time as the designated player because of her bat.
But this was all for naught, as the winner was the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t play,” Cibelli said. “We’re still going to be young next year. But I think we were ready to turn the corner this year. With our core coming back, the future looks very bright.”
The only downside? The dedicated seniors won’t get the chance to experience the rapid turn of events.
Junior Ashleigh Hall was set to return as the main pitcher in a three-hurler rotation for the North Arlington softball team. Photo by Jim Hague
Senior Kayla Francisco was a three-year starter for the North Arlington softball team who earned All-NJIC honors a year ago at shortstop. 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.”