In 21 years as South River High School’s baseball coach, Mike Lepore never coached a female player.
But in Lepore’s 22nd spring leading the Rams, that finally changed.
In February, Tiffany Fischer, a female freshman at South River, elected to play baseball over softball for the Middlesex County school.
In March, she made the junior varsity team and earned a starting spot. Then in early April, something even more unique happened: Lepore brought his first female player up to varsity as a pinch runner and defensive replacement.
Fischer still plays predominantly for the South River JV team, but she is also now a varsity option off the bench.
On April 1, South River beat Bishop George Ahr High School, 4-2, in Edison, its only victory to date in 2019. Late in that game, Fischer came in to play second base.
The Rams held a slim lead with a runner on second. A batter hit a pop up toward Fischer at second. The wind took it over her head and into short right field. Fischer raced out and made a running catch to end the threat and preserve South River’s lead.
“She was my best option,” Lepore said. “She’s a good baseball player.”
“I was nervous but after that I was more confident in myself,” Fischer said.
Fischer has always been “a good baseball player.” The South River resident played in the borough’s little league with the boys, and then on the boys’ traveling teams, too.
Lepore’s son, Vincent Lepore, is in the same age group as Fischer. So the coach met Fischer when he led his son’s 11-year old all-star team, which Fischer also made.
Only she didn’t just make the team.
“She was the star,” Lepore said.
A year later as a 12 year old, Fischer blasted the ball over the little league fence for a home run.
“Which is rare for a girl to do,” Lepore said.
It’s actually rare for anyone to do.
When Fischer got to South River High in the fall, she became the starting varsity goalie on a Rams girls’ soccer team that went 12-3-4 and reached the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 1 sectional tournament quarterfinals.
Then in the winter, Fischer developed into the leading scorer for a South River girls’ basketball squad that finished 18-9 and made the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 2 sectional tournament.
So by the time the spring rolled around, the freshman was already one of the school’s best female athletes.
South River’s softball coach, Debbie De Vivo, thought Fischer might continue that trend by choosing softball over baseball.
But her next challenge was clear: become the school’s best athlete.
“I had talked to her parents and knew she was leaning toward baseball,” Lepore said. “I told her whatever decision she makes, I’ll support her.”
Two weeks before the season started, Fischer texted Lepore with her intention.
“I want to play baseball,” the text read.
“I’ve been playing baseball my entire life, straight out of tee ball,” Fischer added. “So my final decision was, ‘Why would I change doing something I love?'”
She was allowed to choose baseball because the NJSIAA’s Constitution states that “girls shall be allowed to participate in any boys’ sports teams, on an equal basis with boys, provided that the same sports team is not available to girls at that school.” So Fischer would not be able to play on South River’s boys’ soccer or basketball teams, since the school offers girls’ teams in both sports. But she can play baseball because softball is a different game, and South River does not have a girls’ baseball team.
The freshman may have even made the South River varsity team if it didn’t have a bunch of senior starters. But since Fischer is already contributing at the varsity level, Lepore sees her as a future cornerstone.
“Next year she could push for a starting spot,” he said. “She plays everywhere. She’s so versatile.”