Truly believing that they had a better team than they had a year ago, when they had a 14-14 record, the softball coaching staff at St. Dominic Academy took a little bit of a gamble to start the 2002 campaign.
The coaches decided to take the Blue Devils to the Azalea Invitational Tournament in Summerville, S.C. to begin the new season, participating in a tourney that featured some of the best softball teams in the nation, some 40 different teams representing 11 different states.
The result? The Blue Devils lost all three games in South Carolina, a painful 0-3 beginning to a new year.
That kind of start could have backfired on a lot of teams, especially one that lost two key players, namely All-Area standout shortstop Jean Talerico, the 2001 Hudson Reporter Player of the Year, and outfielder Lori Kushnir, to graduation. They also lost returning starting pitcher Brenna Baran, who did not want to play softball this season.
"We lost some key people," said SDA head coach Dave Majewski. "But we really felt that we could be a better team at all nine positions. We were better defensively and we felt that after the tournament in South Carolina, we would be ready when we came back to play the teams in Hudson County."
Having a standout pitcher was a key – and the Blue Devils were totally blessed with the arrival of freshman Leigh Ann Murduca to take over as the top hurler, replacing Baran.
"When Brenna decided not to play this year, the road was cleared for Leigh Ann to step in," Majewski said.
The rookie has been downright brilliant, pitching a perfect game, two no-hitters, two one-hitters and a two-hitter among her 10 victories. She also hung tough in the Azalea Tournament, facing Unicoi (Tennessee), which was the No. 5-ranked team in the nation at the time.
"Leigh Ann was the only freshman voted to the All-Tournament team," Majewski said. "I knew she was talented, but I never expected her to do this well. No way. She has come in and dominated. To say that she has been a pleasant surprise would be an understatement. I thought she might be a part-time player."
Last week, Murduca pitched a two-hitter against North Bergen, besting two-time All-Area performer Jodie Hild, and hit a grand slam homer in the game, giving SDA a resounding 10-0 victory.
"That was definitely a statement game," said Majewski. "Beating a quality pitcher like Jodie Hild, who is considered the best in the county, really was a step-up game for the team. It showed everyone that we’re for real. That put us on the map."
Sure enough, without panicking after having records of 0-3 and 5-7, the Blue Devils are currently atop The Hudson Reporter High School Softball Top Five, with a 10-7 record. They won their fifth game in a row last Tuesday, a 10-1 victory over Dickinson. They have a 6-1 record within the confines of the HCIAA. Things are definitely looking up.
"I think being at that national tournament really helped us win when we got back home," Majewski said. "I think it really helped the team’s confidence, knowing that they could actually play with some of the best teams in the country."
Murduca, whose father, Jim, is one of the team’s assistant coaches – along with Gary Frazier – has also been a stalwart at the plate as well, hitting .488 with three homers and 19 RBI. The Blue Devils’ best hitter thus far has been junior first baseman Melissa Manzo, who is hitting an even .500 with seven homers and 27 RBI.
Junior Dena Tomassi, a key starter for the Blue Devils a year ago, has replaced Kushnir in centerfield, while junior Stephanie Macias has replaced Talerico at shortstop, so the Blue Devils never missed a beat at those two positions.
Second baseman Melissa Rosa is the only senior on the infield, with junior Danielle Candelario holding fort at third base. Junior Jackie Davis returned to her starting position at catcher.
The starting outfield consists of senior Ann Sherry in left, Tomassi in center and sophomore Roxanne Schneider, who also plays for the SDA soccer and basketball teams, in right.
The biggest surprise has been the play of junior Kelly Knapp, who has been a fill-in player for the Blue Devils. Knapp has 21 hits in 27 at-bats this season for a .777 batting average and 17 RBI. And she doesn’t start. Knapp is the team’s designated hitter and part-time first baseman. Those are eye-popping statistics.
"We’re hitting the ball well now and that helps," Majewski said. "People have said that we could be phenomenal next year and could win it all next year. But I told the team that we could win it all right now. If we can upset one team in the playoffs, then, who knows?"
Right now, you have to consider the Blue Devils as a strong contender for the HCIAA crown, a far cry from the team that came home from South Carolina with three losses. – Jim Hague