With six returning starters, the Kearny softball team looks similar on paper. But over the winter and during the first few practices of the season, veteran head coach Jim Pickel noticed a definite difference among this veteran group that went 13-10 a year ago.
“I would definitely say that they believe in themselves this year. They think that they can go further in the (county and state) tournaments,” Pickel said. “They’ve really come together and good things are in the works.
“During the course of the school year you could tell they were hungry to start playing so when our open gyms started up, we had good numbers there and I could tell that we were hungry to play again. Once we started, you could feel the excitement that was there.”
Returning in the circle is senior Tianna Antunes, who struck out 75 batters with two shutouts last season.
“She put in so much work in the offseason and even last year,” said Pickel. “The improvement she showed last year was significant and the improvement I expect from her this year is just as much. She really puts in the time.”
Pickel has a few additional options in the circle as seniors Brielle Burton and Izalyne Moya have experience, while Leilani Cabrera and Stephanie Bianchini could also be in the mix.
Such versatility is also present at catcher where Cabrera will probably start, but could also see Yashlee Rodriguez, sophomore Yaritza Cabrera and junior Nikki Carrera behind the plate.
There’s no such position battle at first base where senior four-year starter Maci Covello is back after slugging a team-best six home runs and 22 RBI last season.
“She is imposing when she steps up to the plate,” said Pickel. “I think pitchers know it and pitchers try not to throw her a good pitch to hit. Overall she’s very dependable when she’s up.”
Another mainstay both at second base and the top of the lineup is junior Sara Ryan. Last season Ryan was one of Hudson County’s breakout stars, hitting .443 with 26 runs, six triples, four home runs and five stolen bases.
“She’s our sparkplug out there,” Pickel said. “If she hits a ground ball you can hear the other team yelling ‘hurry up, hurry up,’ because they know she’s going to get down the line quickly.”
Senior Alex Colon is a returning start at shortstop, who drew 17 walks and scored 21 runs last season.
Moya, who will likely be the primary third baseman, is poised for a big year at the plate after hitting .400 a season ago.
“She really is a strong leader on the team and offensively,” Pickel said. “I think she’s going to have an outstanding season. She’s been looking really sharp in the cage so far.”
Carrera is another who could see time at third base and in the outfield.
Senior Brianna Janeira is set to start in left field, but also has the ability to slide over to center if needed. In centerfield will be sophomore Jordan Bailey, who has been one of the bigger surprises of the spring.
Right field is a spot that will be a mix and match situation as Leilani and Yaritza Cabrera, as well as Burton, Rodriguez and Carrera could all see time out there as well as at designated hitter.
Senior Mikee Lopez, who missed the last two seasons, is back and will vie for at-bats as will Alana Irizarry and Victoria Pereya.
Kearny, which is currently in Myrtle Beach for a few days during spring break, opens the season with a trio of big road games in the HCIAL American Division, starting with Hudson Catholic on April 3, followed by trips to Union City and reigning Hudson County champion Bayonne.
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)