Mike Stoia would love to give himself credit for turning around the Freehold Township High School softball program.
But Stoia, who went 32-14 in his first two seasons leading the Patriots, knows that the success isn’t about him. It’s about the impressive talent cycling through his program, a cycle that just so happened to start in Stoia’s first season, 2017.
“I would love to say we’re doing something amazing, but we’ve just had a lot of good kids,” Stoia said, laughing.
Despite their talent though, the Patriots fell short in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 4 sectional tournament quarterfinals in each of the past two springs. Freehold Township lost to Old Bridge High School, 2-1, in 2017 and to Middletown High School South, 9-8, in 2018.
This spring, with just about everybody back, the Pats hope to go all the way. They are 1-1 through two games, and will continue their season with a home game on April 8 against Middletown South.
“Our goal is to win Central NJ Group 4,” Stoia said.
With Freehold Township’s roster, it’s a reasonable goal.
In juniors Zoey Valentino and Lauren Pscolka, Stoia has two of the best players in central New Jersey. In junior Gia McKnight, he might have one of the best pitchers, too.
After Valentino’s first preseason with Freehold Township, Stoia knew she was great. He was already in love with the sound of her bat hitting the ball.
“It sounds like somebody is chopping down a tree,” Stoia said.
But Valentino was still a freshman, so the coach decided to sit her for the team’s season opener. Later in the game though, he couldn’t resist. The rookie coach put in the rookie player, and she rocketed a single to right field.
“I said, ‘I’m batting her from now on,'” Stoia said, laughing. “And she has hit like that ever since.”
In 2018, Valentino hit .515 with 10 home runs, 35 hits and 45 runs batted in, breaking the program’s single season records for home runs and RBIs. The sophomore also became the first All-Shore Conference First Team selection in her school’s history.
This year in the preseason, Valentino batted well over .500 and bopped five homers in six scrimmages.
“She’s ready for a ridiculous year,” Stoia said.
“I feel pretty good,” Valentino said.
If there’s a local softball version of baseball legend Rickey Henderson, it’s Pscolka.
Henderson was an on base machine for a bunch of Major League Baseball teams during his 25-year career (1979-2003). In other words, he was the ideal leadoff hitter.
Pscolka is too. Last spring, she batted .514 with 37 hits. She created a ton of RBI opportunities for Valentino, and she should again in 2019.
“She rarely gets out,” Stoia said.
As Freehold Township’s ace last season, McKnight went 15-6 and made the All-Shore Conference Third Team. But she was not the fire balling archetype you see on ESPN during the Women’s College World Series.
Instead, McKnight pitched to contact and trusted her defenders. She also fielded her position well, springing out of the circle to catch pop ups and snare grounders.
“She defends better than most pitchers,” Stoia said.
But for the Pats to win the state title this spring, McKnight probably has to go to another level. That’s why she is adding a changeup to her rise ball-curveball-screwball repertoire.
The change wasn’t ready last year, but it is now.
“She’ll be able to dominate when that pitch comes about,” Stoia said.
So will the Patriots.
“We’re looking good,” Pscolka said. “We have a lot of returners.”
Other returning standouts include right fielder Kristen Pagliaro and third baseman Kiersten Withstandley, who both made the All-Shore Conference A North Division team a year ago. Senior second baseman Lauren Andersen and left fielder Kayla Loges also contributed in 2018, with 16 runs and 17 RBIs, respectively.
“We are very deep,” Stoia said.