In the standings it might only count as one win, but to first year North Arlington head softball coach Kevin Blackford, Thursday’s 6-3 victory at Secaucus was an example of what this young group can become.
“We have a very young group and it’s important, especially as a coaching staff, to keep them positive,” Blackford said. “You’re going to make mistakes, but you have to learn from those mistakes and grow from them.
“This was the first game where we started putting everything together. Making solid contact, pitching well, making the plays behind the pitcher. It was the first game that everything came together for us.”
With 18 of the 23 girls in the program either freshmen or sophomores, Blackford is confident that many more games like this past Thursday at Secaucus await this group, both later in the season and in future years.
A key part of that core is freshman pitcher Jacklyn Burbach, who tossed a three-hitter with five strikeouts and two walks at Secaucus. Consistency with control has been an issue at times for the lefty hurler, but Burbach, who has 20 strikeouts in 20 innings, is someone Blackford believes could be a good pitcher.
Blackford can also turn to junior Jeylene Joza in the circle.
At catcher is one of the few seniors, Grace Alho, who has already stolen six bases over the Vikings’ first five games and serves as the team’s leadoff hitter and co-captain.
““She’s our rock behind the plate,” said Blackford. “She really keeps control of the infield for us, especially with a freshman pitcher like Jacklyn we really need it.”
Sophomore Isabella Huerta and freshman Mackenzie Stone are both seeing time at first base. Another underclassmen is starting second baseman Lyndsay Gilbert.
At shortstop is Joza, a three-year starter and the Vikings best defensive infielder. When Joza is pitching, Gilbert moves over to short with Stone at second.
The other senior captain is Shaelyn Males at third base, who hit .429 last year and, like Alho, is in her third season as a starter.
“She’s good at being vocal. She’s someone that the girls talk to a lot and lean on a lot,” Blackford said. “She’ll go out of her way to help the infield, especially with them being so young and inexperienced. She’s a great leader to have for our freshmen.”
While runs have been difficult to come by early on, Blackford knows he has one of the NJIC’s better offensive threats in the junior center fielder Rhi’Anna Gomez.
Gomez, who hit an eye-opening .456 over her freshman and sophomore seasons, might only have three hits so far this season, but she has made them count, slugging three home runs, including a pivotal two-run shot in the seventh inning at Secaucus.
“We know she’s a good hitter, but we’re really starting to see the maturity from her both on and off the field,” said Blackford. “She’s becoming a very strong leader for us, she takes over centerfield, nothing gets by her. At the plate, she’s really has come through for us in the big moments where we really need a big hit.”
Sophomore Kyra Garcia, who currently leads the team in hitting at .357, is the starting right fielder. Left field is currently shared by freshman Skyler Crudele and sophomore Julia Karcic.
Junior Ashley Magalhaes, who is currently sidelined by injury, should further bolster the outfield when she returns to action.
Either Huerta, Stone or freshman Skyler McCool serves on the designated hitter depending on the matchup.
Also serving key roles are speedsters Kayla FitzSimons, a senior, and freshman Jillian Smith. Sophomore outfielder Brielle Perez is an experienced outfielder and a valuable defender.
North Arlington’s record currently stands at 1-4, heading into a Monday division game at Harrison. Two days later, North Arlington will host a Weehawken team that reached the Hudson County and Group 1 finals a year ago, followed by a Friday game at Lyndhurst.
“I think we have the start of something very special here,” said Blackford, who served as an assistant the previous four years. “When I saw the job open up here at North Arlington, I already knew it was a big freshman group and that there was a lot of potential here to compete, not just this year, but consistently compete year in and year out, which is the ultimate goal for us”
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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.)