By Bob Nuse
Coach Gary Nucera loves the makeup and enthusiasm of his Hopewell Valley Central High School softball team.
Now the Bulldogs just need a little more experience to turn those positives into a winning record.
“It is definitely a family atmosphere this year,” said Nucera, whose team opened the season with a 15-8 loss to Lawrence on Monday. “We’ve got Eric Guise back as my No. 1 assistant and it helps to have that person there that is helping you coach who knows the girls. He stepped down last year to get his Masters, but he is back. We have hard-working kids that once they get their chemistry and some more experience we’re going to be fine.”
The Bulldogs had just 10 players a year ago as they struggled though a 3-18 season. This year the addition of several newcomers has the roster up at 14 players and the opportunity for success has the team feeling optimistic.
“We returned everybody, so we have a nice nucleus of returning players and seasoned players,” said Nucera, whose team was scheduled to face Robbinsville on Wednesday. “We also inherited a solid crop of freshmen who will factor into the lineup. I don’t envision our hitting being a problem. We’re hitting one through 11 right now. We have depth players who have not played much softball who are natural athletes.
“I love the players on this team. We have some who are young and we have to get into the season and let them get that experience. We have a freshman and a sophomore on the mound right now and they are not road tested yet. They just have get experience.”
Freshman Sam Shaw and sophomore Katie Orlando will handle the pitching duties for the Bulldogs. Orlando has a few appearances on the mound last year and also plays all over the field when she’s not pitching.
While the pitching is young and still a work in progress, Nucera has little doubt his team will score runs. He loves his lineup and feels like putting runs on the board won’t be a problem.
“Hitting won’t be a problem,” Nucera said. “We came out and we were aggressive and jumped out to a 4-0 lead. It came down to pitching. We had 13 walks and 11 of them scored. But we scored eight runs. And as our pitchers develop we’ll have more success there.”
The Hopewell Valley lineup looks solid with four-year starter Nicole Apai leading off. She’s solid in center field and has the ability to get on base. Mia Carrell follows Apai in the lineup and brings a power bat to the shortstop position.
“Our three through six batters can almost rotate every game depending on the situation,” Nucera said. “They are all strong hitters.”
In that middle of the lineup are senior catcher Meredith Sharp, sophomore first baseman Katie Kent, freshman third baseman Sophia Zangrilli, and Shaw.
“They can all hit,” Nucera said. “Sophia is a freshman who comes from a family of athletes. Sam is a righty thrower who bats left and her bat is dynamite. She makes solid, hard contact.”
The rest of the order includes Orlando, Kayleigh Crowe, Sarah Angle and Mea Allex. Nucera also expects to get contributions from the rest of the roster from such players as Erin Murphy, Sydney Brooks and Caitlin Flannery. Sarah Yancey will also be counted on once she returns from injury.
“Kayleigh has a good power bat,” said Nucera, whose team is scheduled to face face West Windsor-Plainsboro North on Thursday and Steinert on Monday. “Sarah also swings a strong bat. Mea has height, speed, and a great work ethic. She has never played softball but she runs everything down and catches everything. She is a raw talent and is fitting into the lineup.
“Erin Murphy is a senior who is playing softball for the first time. She played goalie in soccer. We picked up these two great athletes with Mea and Erin. They just want to play.”
Brooks and Flannery are also new to softball and have been adjusting well to the sport. Nucera will be happy to gave Yancey back once she recovers from her injury.
“Sarah Yancey is our starting second baseman and has the speed and fundamentals and grit that you need,” the Bulldogs’ coach said. “I host a fitness challenge for soccer and softball players and she is the only freshman in six years of running it to earn the top spot in soccer and softball. She doesn’t look like this huge athlete. She’s a lean, blue-collar player who is aggressive. She’s injured right now and she is just waiting to go right in. I got to see her a little and she gives us more speed and fundamentals.”
Nucera is hoping his team is able to shake off a tough opener and get itself heading in the right direction as the season progresses.
“We let it get away from us,” Nucera said of the opener. “We’re young and we are getting to know each other and understand that grade and experience mean nothing. This is a great sport because there is a chance to contribute in so many different ways. You can hit, play the field, run the bases. So you get multiple chances to change the game.
“The girls have a great short term memory and can put it behind them quickly and that helps us for the next game.”
The enthusiasm of the newcomers and young players will certainly help.
“When Nicole saw some of these freshmen coming up she said maybe we can shock the CVC (Colonial Valley Conference),” Nucera said. “The first game offensively we did he job. Defensively we did the job. We just need these little things to come together.”