Chris Cantarella didn’t have to worry too much about rebuilding the confidence of the Belleville softball team following last year’s 1-17 season. That’s because the veteran head coach was one of the very few to experience the struggles of last spring.
“They don’t really have the experience of what happened last year,” said Cantarella. There’s a lot of new girls, a lot of fresh faces. There’s only two that played varsity last year so none of them know any difference or know the struggles of last year because they were playing JV or (middle school).”
Instead, this group has experienced only success in the first few days of the season. Belleville already has more wins than last year after convincing victories over Newark Tech (11-1) and West Caldwell Tech (18-3) to move to 2-0.
Even with dropping down from the Super Essex Conference’s Liberty Division to the Colonial, the difference in results is dramatic.
“The girls are playing well and winning breeds happiness. It doesn’t matter who you beat, if you win a game, you feel good about yourself,” Cantarella said. “They’re gaining more confidence and they all want to contribute. It’s been very positive so far.
“There’s a lot of positives coming from it, especially for the younger girls. We start seven underclassmen so to develop some confidence, get some wins under their belt, make them feel good about themselves helps us not only this year, but next year and years moving forward.”
Leading the way early on has been sophomore pitcher Nina Germino, one of the two who started last year. This year, Germino has pitched to a 1.40 ERA through her first two starts while also leading the Bucs in runs (five) and hits (4).
“She pitched a little bit last year. It’s not really her primary position, she’s probably a better outfielder than anything else, but she’s been doing really well, throwing strikes and making the other team try to put the ball in play against her,” Cantarella said. “She’s not somebody who is a dominant strikeout pitcher, she pitches to contact, but she’s doing a really good job of putting the ball in different locations and getting a lot of success from that.”
Senior Zahra Dhalla is Belleville’s No. 2 pitcher and will see innings in the circle this spring.
At catcher is senior Diane Estrada, who with three runs and three RBI is one of several first-year varsity players off to a great start.
“She blocks the ball really well, she throws the ball pretty well,” said Cantarella. “She’s been swinging the bat really well to start.”
At first base, freshman Mya Estrict and sophomore Melissa Pego are currently sharing the position. Thus far, Estrict leads the team with four RBI and Pego has two.
Catalina Cucaz, a senior, is at second base and has solidified the middle of the Buccaneers’ offense with her speed.
“(Catalina’s a) middle of the lineup kind of girl with good speed,” Cantarella said. She’s like our second leadoff hitter in the middle of the order.”
Junior Deanna McIntosh is a returning starter at shortstop and has begun the year with three RBI in her first six at-bats. Freshman Anniyah Thompson (three runs) is the starter at third base.
Sophomore Danaijah Santiago, is a slick defender on the infield and will see extensive action late in games.
Belleville’s lineup received a massive boost with the return of senior Ashley Cely after missing all of last year with a hand injury. Cely, who seemed poised for big things after her sophomore season, has scored a team-high five runs out of the No. 2 spot in the lineup.
“She’s back and she’s leaving off where she left off two years ago,” Cantarella said. “After the 2021 season we had high hopes for her, then she didn’t play last year, but she’s back right where she is and doing very well defensively and offensively. She’s quick, runs the bases well, gets the ball down.”
Junior Kaylee Gutierrez starts in centerfield, while a trio of players – Angelina Navarrete, Jeylain Cruz and Leilani Marzan – are all competing for and sharing the right field spot.
Belleville looked to continue its winning ways with an April 10 matchup against Newark East Side. In addition to its division schedule, the Buccaneers also have independent games against Edison, Kearny, Newark Academy and Bloomfield.
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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.)