By Bob Behre
While the bulk of the important softball tournament season occurs in spring and summer, critical bonds are formed between teammates during the slog of fall practice sessions and a rare tournament.
So it can be quite valuable to a team’s development to experience the grind of a competitive tournament amid the unfriendly fall conditions. The Finch’s Aces 14U squad embraced such a challenge last weekend on its way to the USSSA Winter Nationals championship at Diamond Nation.
“It was a very exciting tournament run for the girls,” said Aces 14U coach Anthony Rotondo, who doubles as the North Hunterdon High School varsity softball coach. “They had to brave the elements and fight through it. I know it sounds cliché, but it was a total team effort. Every girl contributed one way or another.”
It was a cold and windy weekend at The Nation, conditions more friendly to playoff football than fastpitch softball.
“We were down 3-1 in the semifinals going into our last at bat,” said Rotondo. “Considering the weather, we could have called it a day right there, but we put together a big inning and were able to get out of trouble.”
The Aces 14U rallied for eight runs in an at bat that clearly defined the team’s quick development since August and turned a 3-1 deficit into a 9-3 lead against Pocono Pride Red. The Aces would hang on to win 9-6 and advance to the championship game.
Jenna Crampton permitted three earned runs on six hits and struck out five over four innings of work to keep the Aces in the game. The bats of Chloe Smarz (2-for-3, 2 RBI), Rachel Nargi (2-for-2, triple, 2 runs), Jenna Piatkiewickz (1-for-2, double, RBI), Avery Spalter (2-for-3, double, RBI, run) and Sarah DeStefano (1-for-3, double, 2 RBI, run) came up big. Piatkiewickz’s double in the fourth had tied the game at that point.
Aside from a 17-2 victory over the Blue Valley Mountain Lions in the final game of pool play, the Aces had to contend with nail-biting, heart-wrenching battles throughout the tournament and the championship game would be no different.
Piatkiewicz delivered the highlight reel clutch hit, a tiebreaking three-run inside-the-park home run in the fourth inning, and Crampton shut down the Long Island Express in the final inning to earn the save in a wild 7-6 championship victory.
“We’d been to one final but hadn’t won,” said Rotondo. “It was important to get the girls to know what it’s like to win a tournament. Now they know what that feeling is like. It’ll get that mindset right for the spring and summer.”
DeStefano (2-for-3, RBI, 2 runs), Katie Orlando (2-for-3, triple, RBI, run) and Spalter (1-for-3, double, RBI) chipped in with big efforts at the plate in the final as the Aces 14U avenged its only tournament loss to the Long Island Express.
The Aces only misstep in the tournament came in a 6-5 loss to the Express in the tournament opener. Nee (2-for-2, 2 RBI), Tessa Brunetti (2-for-3, double, 2 runs), Smarz (2-for-3, 2 runs), DeStefano (2-for-2, two doubles, 2 RBI) and Crampton (1 IP, 0 hits, 3 strikeouts) had big games in the one-run loss.
But the Aces 14U righted the ship with a 5-4 victory over the Jersey Shore Huskies in the second game of pool play. Crampton picked up the victory as she permitted one earned run on four hits and struck out five over 3.2 innings. The big hits were provided by Alyssa D’Alessio (2-for-2, double, RBI), Rachel Nargi (triple, 2 RBI), Spalter (1-for-2, 2 runs) and Nina Lolli (1-2, run).
“We started off slow,” said Rotondo. “Earlier in the fall we seemed to have that bad inning. But now we are limiting the damage. We’ve been 7-3 or 7-4 our last few tournaments. We are developing. The girls are getting along and know each other now. Our energy has been incredible. I’m impressed how we are becoming a team instead of 12 individual players.”
The big explosion for the Aces 14U occurred in the 17-2 victory over the Lions in the final game of pool play. Katherine Nee (1-for-1, triple, walk, 3 runs), Brunetti (2-for-2, 2 RBI) and Nargi (2-for-3, double, 4 RBI) provided the lethal bats. Orlando picked up the victory on the mound, permitted two earned runs on one hit and struck out three in two innings of work.
“I told the girls and their parents that, at this age level, one of the first concerns is their development,” said Rotondo. “I want to win as bad as anyone else but right now of paramount concern is the development of our players. Are they getting better and learning the finer points of the game? If they do that, the winning will take care of itself.”
The Aces 14U transition now into winter mode, which includes two-day a week practices, strength and conditioning and speed and agility training. “Sometimes time off can be as valuable as squeezing in a few more practices,” said Rotondo. “Ending the fall the way we did, the girls definitely feel good about themselves.”