By: Bob Behre
(This article also appears in the Fall Issue of Diamond Nation Magazine)
When a softball program undergoes the type of sudden growth the Finch’s Aces softball organization has experienced the past six months, one
searches for words to describe the metamorphosis.
“I think we’ve created a buzz throughout local teams and high schools and have gotten people excited,” says new Finch’s Aces Softball Director Jackie Spina. “It’s not really a rebranding of the program, rather it’s a sort of a re-energizing.”
It was easy to see a new energy emerging during the Aces’ September workouts and scrimmages. And it appears those good vibes are resonating among both players and coaches.
“I was impressed with our tryouts,” said Spina, who completed her first season last spring as the Ridge High School head softball coach. “We had a lot of talented kids come out and, from there, we had a difficult process trying to find the best fit for each team.”
The Aces program, which had two teams playing softball this time last year, has expanded to six teams, filling each age group -- 10U, 12U, 14U, 16U and 18U. The 18U level boasts two teams. The fall season will be the jumping off point for a program on a significant rise. And the timing couldn’t be better with the annual Finch’s Aces Fall Invitational (Oct. 7-8) at Diamond Nation just around the corner.
“We are really looking to come out on top in the Finch tournament,” said Spina. “I want my teams to fight at every level and we are working toward becoming dominant. Our girls are very excited for the Invitational.”
Of course, there is no small event that includes Diamond Nation’s frequent tournament and camp visitor, Olympic Softball legend Jennie Finch, the program’s namesake. The Fall Invitational is one of three visits by Finch each year. Finch’s infectious personality and valuable input provide an amazing complement to the Invitational.
“The girls are already talking about Jennie coming and can’t wait to get their tournament tee-shirts,” said Spina. “Jennie is such a great role model in our sport. Our 16s and 18s take a lot of pride in representing her name well on a national level.”
The Aces’ six teams had an auspicious beginning to their fall season when each team played extremely well during a slate of scrimmages the weekend of Sept. 8-10. The Aces absorbed just a single loss program wide in their first foray out of the gate.
“All of our teams played well,” said Spina. “It was a good start to the fall.”
This fall and the coming spring and summer are the start of what Spina and Diamond Nation intend to be a long, successful run providing excellent softball tutelage to girls aged 10- to-18. That is reflected in a top-notch coaching staff that includes current North Hunterdon High School head coach Anthony Rotundo and North’s assistant coach Matt Pizza. Rotundo has coached 10 years at the high school level while steering two high school teams -- Notre Dame in 2006 and ‘07 and North Hunterdon in ‘14 -- to three sectional championships.
Christian Campbell comes to the Aces from the Skyland Pride program. He’ll guide the 10U Aces, already melding into a cohesive group. Pizza is coaching the 12U Aces and Rotundo steers the 14U squad. The 16U Aces are blessed to have a pair of TCNJ and Morris Hills High School grads in head coach Lauren Aspiazu and assistant Stacey Abasto. Aspiazu is currently coaching at Morris Hills.
Chuck Many, president of North Hunterdon Softball and Skylands Fastpitch, has joined the Aces as both an advisor and coach of the Aces’ 18U Showcase team. Many’s daughter, Isabelle, is an alumni of the Finch’s Aces program. An All-Area performer at North Hunterdon, Isabelle Many plays collegiately at Georgia Tech.
Spina, herself a heralded Ridge High School grad and a Division 1 player and coach at DePaul University, will coach the Aces’ 18U Premier club. Spina was a four-time All-Big East Conference performer at DePaul and while coaching at the Chicago school also was Director of Operations. In that position, she handled team travel and administrative duties while instructing players on defense, catching and hitting.
“Moving forward, we’d like to have multiple teams at multiple age groups,” said Spina, “but we won’t force that. We don’t want to grow at the expense of watering down our talent. We want all of our teams to be successful. We want to develop fundamentals so the girls continue to be highly competitive as they move up in age groups.
Diamond Nation has committed resources to the expansion of the Finch’s Aces program with the goal of fortifying the program for longterm success.
“Diamond Nation is dedicated to growing our softball program,” said Diamond Nation General Manager Nick Massari, “and carrying out our mission to provide education, evaluation, development, competition and exposure for our Finch’s Aces teams and student athletes.”
The Aces have also stepped up tutelage in the area of college recruiting, enlisting Spina’s father’s company, Thomas Tarulli Sports Marketing, to assist Aces players through the process of finding the proper college fit.
“We work on time management and communication with coaches,” said Tarulli. “We believe there is a school and a right fit for every athlete.” Triple Crown Sports College Placement Index recently ranked Tarulli Sports Marketing clients No. 1 in the Northeast and No. 27 in the nation. Tarulli has worked with student-athletes for more than 15 years.
Massari adds, “Our softball instructional programming will expand as we will provide more camps, clinics and showcases. Lesson availability will also expand as we include Jackie, Anthony and Matt to our existing lessons staff.” Spina’s excitement for the program’s development continues to spill forth.
“The recruiting end of it is a huge bonus to our program,” said Spina. “You can teach girls even at the 10U level that they can have a dream and, working hard at what we preach, they can get there. And even if your goal isn’t to play in college, you can work toward a goal of improving your skills every year.”
Finch’s Aces fast late summer start has the program positioned for an exciting future. “That we’ve elevated from two teams to six teams is a very successful start,” said Spina. “It’s a huge testament to our coaching staff that we’ve been able to achieve that. They are knowledgeable and have a ton of experience and it is showing in the girls’ early improvements.”