Jimmy Pickel didn’t know what to expect of the 2021 high school softball season, because the veteran head coach of the Kearny High School program had such a young and inexperienced roster to begin with.
So when the Kardinals began the season with a 2-2 record and having suffered lopsided losses to Columbia and Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League rival Hudson Catholic, it was thought that perhaps the Kards were headed for a tailspin.
“I think a lot of the other teams were like us after the pandemic and having the year off,” Pickel said. “Some teams didn’t even have JV (junior varsity) teams. I think it set everyone back. You could see it. We only have two girls who played for us two years ago. A few of them might have been on the team last year. I didn’t know them and didn’t have much time to get to know them with a two-week preseason. We didn’t have a lot of teaching time.”
Pickel said that his young team battled early season jitters.
“They told me that they were nervous,” Pickel said. “I didn’t understand that.”
But the Kards have righted their ship, having won five of their last seven games to improve to 7-4 overall and in the middle of the HCIAL standings.
“We’re definitely seeing more positive things,” Pickel said. “We’re hitting the ball pretty well. The defense has been improved. We had some illness and injury early, but we’re getting our full team back.”
Taking the bull by the horns is sophomore pitcher Maci Covello, who is an absolutely brilliant all-around athlete. Covello, who is a standout soccer player in the fall and basketball player in the winter, has carried her talents to the softball diamond and pitching circle.
“She has pitched seven straight games for us now,” Pickel said of Covello. “She said she wanted to pitch and she’s done a nice job. I think she could be even better as a pitcher if we had more practice time. She’s been learning on the fly.”
Covello is also the team’s leading hitter, already bashing five doubles, a triple and 10 RBI. Covello had three doubles in a recent win over Ferris.
The catching duties have been shared by sophomore Alex Colon and junior Mikalah Franchino, who is Maci Covello’s stepsister.
“Whoever catches, the other plays shortstop,” Pickel said. “Alex has been doing very well for us. She has a great eye at the plate and walks a lot.”
First base duties are shared by Colon and junior Amelia Perez.
The Kards have a number of people who can play second base, like sophomore Kailyn DaSilva, who offers a lot of options when she’s healthy.
“She’s a spunky little second baseman,” Pickel said.
Others seeing time there include sophomore Tianna Antunes, junior Alyssa Franco and freshman Sara Ryan.
“I’d rather have just one girl play there,” Pickel said. “With everything that’s happening like COVID-19 and injury, it has been hard to do.”
Shortstop duties fall upon either Colon or Franchino.
The third baseman is sophomore Crystal Franco, the younger sister of Alyssa.
Junior Anna Powell is the left fielder, with junior Carley Natosi in centerfield.
“She’s done a very nice job,” Pickel said of Natosi, who hit a home run in the Kards’ win over Lincoln two weeks ago. “I always knew she had it in her.”
The right fielder is sophomore Izalyne Moya, who is also a tough cookie, considering she is one of the lone girls on the Kearny boys’ wrestling team.
Senior Natalie Vega is another in the mix in the outfield and is the team’s lone senior.
So Pickel feels better about the status of his team.
“I think we’re playing well,” Pickel said. “Even the game we lost against North Bergen, I thought we played well. We’re getting there.”
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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.”