On first glance, it may be jarring to see Lyndhurst’s softball team with a record below .500 and likely on the outside looking in when the state tournament is seeded next week.
But with a roster that includes just one senior and as many as six freshmen in the starting lineup, first year head coach Diana Auteri knew that the approach this season had to be a little different than in previous years when the Golden Bears were strong contenders in the NJIC and the North 2, Group 2 section.
“That’s been the theme all year,” Auteri said about her team that is currently 4-15. “Not worrying about the wins and losses, but worrying about growing, developing, learning the game. They’re so young and I think a lot of people don’t realize how young they are.
“No one likes to lose, but they have a great attitude. They smile, they laugh. For my first year as a head coach, I absolutely love this group and I tell it to them all the time. They want to learn, so they soak it in like a sponge.”
Most of Auteri’s young players have endured ups and downs over the course of the spring, understandable considering their lack of experience. The most notable exception to that has been freshman catcher Gianna Lembo, who quickly established herself as one of the NJIC’s top leadoff hitters.
Lembo is hitting a stellar .375, while also leading the team in hits (18) and stolen bases with 16.
“Gianna has a lot of potential,” said Auteri. “With her speed, she can be a threat. She can ever get into that lefty batters box and we can turn her into a slapper. She has all the talent and is capable of greatness moving forward.”
Three more freshmen start on the Lyndhurst infield. Ava Woolis is at first base and Aitana Lozano, who is also a fine wrestler during the winter.
At shortstop is Nikalena Iacono, a standout shot put thrower in the winter as well a key contributor on the soccer pitch. Softball is considered her top sport however and despite some struggles at the plate this season, Iacono stole eight bases, played good defense at short and is set to be a core piece for years to come.
“I’m expecting her to step it up a little bit next year,” Auteri said. “She can also be a threat (at the plate) and I’m really excited to see her grow.”
At third base is the team’s lone senior, Leah Ricigliano. A returning starter, Ricigliano leads the team in runs (13), extra-base hits and walks, while being a leader for her younger teammates.
“She stepped up big time this year,” said Auteri. “On the field, her defense got sharper at the hot corner. She gained a lot of strength and became solid for us in the No. 3 spot in the order.”
Another returning starter is junior center Kiera Docherty. Surrounding Docherty has been a rotation in left and right field with freshmen Mia Montalto and Mylah Campbell and sophomores Madeline Turano and Kiana Marizan.
The main pitcher has been junior Emily Reed. Reed, who served as the backup to four-year starter Ella Tozduman, has recorded 56 strikeouts in 67 innings this season. Auteri is optimistic about the potential of Reed and Montalto in the circle. Montalto, who has served as a reliever and spot starter, has 25 strikeouts in 33 innings.
Lyndhurst was set to play New Milford on Monday night, the first of four road games to close out the regular season. From there, the Golden Bears play Harrison on Wednesday, North Arlington on Thursday and Park Ridge on Saturday. For Auteri, the goal of this final week is clear – to end on a high note and build some momentum into the offseason and years to come.
A lot of people may not understand (how young we are) when they see our record. But as long as we know we’re putting in that work (we’ll get better),” Auteri said. “I said to them in a couple of years from now, people will say, wow they came a long way. We’re going to grow every day as long as we’re putting in the work.”
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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.)