Offense leads the way for Kearny softball in opening week wins

Following the graduation of four of its top five hitters from a season ago, including record setting slugger Maci Covello, it was fair to wonder how this year’s Kearny softball team was going to produce runs this spring.

If the first two games of the season are any indication, the offense will once again be a strength for the Kardinals.

Kearny opened its season by winning a wild, 16-15 slugfest at Hoboken on Thursday. Then, 24 hours later, went out and scored 11 more runs for an 11-6 victory over North Bergen.

“I was definitely surprised because of not just the amount of seniors we lost, but the quality of our seniors and their importance,” head coach Jim Pickel said. “But this group has done pretty well. We had a lot of starters coming back.”

The most prominent of those returning starters is senior shortstop and leadoff hitter Sara Ryan. A four-year starter on the infield, Ryan hit .412 with 27 runs scored last season.

Hitting behind Ryan is freshman catcher Madison Rodriguez, who has already made an instant impact for Kearny. Rodriguez already has three doubles and four runs scored in her young career.

“I’ve been watching her play for a number of years now and I knew she could play at this level,” said Pickel, noting that Rodriguez has often played against older girls.’ Nothing really fazes her at all. She knows what she can do and she can compete with anybody.”

In the middle of the Kearny lineup is senior outfielder Leilani Cabrera, who hit .310 with 16 RBI a season ago and is being counted upon to be the Kardinals top power hitter.

“She’s a three-year player for us and we’re really looking to see her take that next step,” said Pickel. “You can’t replace Maci, but we’re hoping (Leilani) is the one (who can help fill the role) with her bat.”

Junior Yaritza Cabrera, who hit .317, is another middle of the order bat, who will start in the outfield. Senior Nikki Carrera, who saw a lot of action at third base last year, will be in the mix in the outfield as well as junior centerfielder Jordan Bailey, senior Jaela Nalverte and sophomore Ava Natosi who, after missing all of last year due to a knee injury, hit a grand slam in the win over Hoboken.

Another sophomore primed for a big role is Kathryn Schwerzler, who takes over at first base for the Kardinals with senior Mia Salwan also vying for time at the position. Junior Victoria Pereyra, who entered the starting lineup late last season, is set to be the main third baseman and already has three RBI this spring. Second base is expected to be shared by senior Ciara Irizarry and junior Alana Irizary, who are not related.

In the circle, Stephanie Bianchini takes over as the top pitcher after serving as the No. 2 behind Tianna Antunes the past two seasons.

Bianchini, a senior, might not have overpowering stuff, but makes up for it with good control.

“She showed some ability last year,” Pickel said of Bianchini, who tossed a four-hitter late in the year against St. Dominic. “She’s not going to overpower anybody, but he’s kind of a little sneaky (with her pitches). She doesn’t really walk anybody, she pounds the strike zone and lets them put it in play.”

Freshman Cassandra Montalvo will also see some time in the circle for Kearny. Montalvo and Anastasia Guy will see some time at multiple positions this spring with Guy, a freshman, already serving as a pinch runner.

Kearny looked to continue its winning ways on Monday, April 8 when it traveled to Union City before hosting perennial county contender Hudson Catholic on Wednesday. The Kardinals will close out the week with independent road games at Harrison on Thursday and West Orange on Saturday.

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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 (, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)