By Rich Bevensee
It may have taken decades to put together, but no one connected to the Skyland Conference Softball Senior All-Star Game, now in its fourth season, can imagine a spring season concluding without it.
Team National, coached by Bound Brook’s Shannon DeLuca and Pingry’s Chip Carver, and Team American, coached by Hillsborough’s Cheryl Iaione and Mike Surella of Gill St. Bernard’s, played to a 2-2 tie over nine innings on Thursday evening at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
North Hunterdon’s Grace Reed, who blasted a no-doubt-about-it, 205-foot, solo home run over the left field fence to give Team American a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fifth inning, was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
“I thought it was really fun,” said the Villanova-bound Reed. “All three years
(of her varsity career), we’ve all known each other, but it was definitely really good to know each other and work together. I think if we were an actual team we would have a lot of fun.”
The all-star game is the brainchild of longtime New Jersey sportswriter Simeon Pincus, who assembled a committee of coaches to help him realize his dream.
The inaugural game was played in 2019 – it was rained out after three innings – and has been played the last three years. There was no game in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic.
“This has been something which has been talked about for years, going back a decade or two – it would be nice if the Skyland Conference had an all-star game,” Pincus said. “After talking to coaches, we got a committee of eight or nine of us together and hammered out the details. I didn’t do it myself. I had a lot of help. Somebody had to push it, so between myself and the coaches, we were ready to make that push.”
Pincus said he couldn’t have imagined the game enjoying greater success.
“The kids love it and we’ve gotten such great feedback,” he said. “It’s been received phenomenally. I couldn’t imagine how great the feedback and social media have been. And the way the kids talk about it, it’s just awesome. Seeing all the different uniforms on one field is my favorite part.”
DAVENPORT FIRING ZEROES
One of the stars of the game was Hillsborough pitcher Sarah Davenport, who leaves behind quite a legacy as one of New Jersey’s finest inside the circle. She leaves high school as the 21st pitcher to reach 1,000 strikeouts, and it is believed, according to Pincus, that she may be the first to do so in three seasons. Davenport finished her career with 1,093 strikeouts and led the team to Group 4 finals appearances in 2021 and this season.
Davenport, who pitched to a 0.27 ERA with just seven earned runs allowed and 431 whiffs over 198 innings this spring, started the game for Team American by tossing four shutout innings with one hit – by Hunterdon Central’s Celia Totaro – and nine strikeouts.
“It’s crazy that my career went by so fast, I can’t even believe it, and I’m going to miss it so much,” Davenport said. “I’m proud of everything I’ve been able to accomplish, helping my team get so far throughout these last three years. Being an all-star means a lot to me. Being able to come out here with the best players is really fun.”
Davenport also helped her cause by sparking her team’s eighth-inning rally with a sharp single to center. Her courtesy runner, Delaware Valley’s Skylee Ohler, later scored on an infield throwing error following a bunt by Mia Ganter of Watchung Hills to give Team American a 2-0 lead.
Team National, after getting shut out for eight innings by Davenport, Delaware Valley’s Paige Brightwell and Bridgewater-Raritan’s Kailey Hisko, rallied in the top of the ninth to tie the game.
Hunterdon Central’s Riley Failla walked and Pingry’s Grace Stowe doubled to lead off the inning. Davenport re-entered the circle to relieve Hisko and the next batter, Phillipsburg’s Addie Fornacian, laid down a bunt single to score Failla. Then Stowe scored on a wild pitch to tie the game.
With runners on first and third and one out, Davenport buckled down and got a pair of strikeouts to squelch Team National’s rally.
And speaking of gutsy late-game pitching, Mount St. Mary’s Shea Murphy slipped out of a jam in the bottom of the ninth to preserve the tie. She retired the first two batters but a walk and an error allowed Team American to put runners on second and third with two out. Murphy ended the game by throwing a stunning curveball to get the last batter looking.
For the visitors, Team National, Jules Raymond of Watchung Hills pitched three shutout innings and allowed one hit and two walks with six strikeouts. Teammate Amanda Medina allowed one run over three innings with two hits, three walks and four strikeouts. Phillipsburg’s Fornacian pitched two innings and allowed one run on two hits and struck out three. Murphy of Mount St. Mary’s pitched a scoreless ninth with one walk and one strikeout.
For the home team, Team American, Davenport was magnificent over the first four innings, allowing no runs and just one hit and no walks and striking out nine. Brightwell pitched three shutout innings and allowed two hits and one walk with five strikeouts. Hisko pitched one inning and permitted two runs (one earned) on one hit and two walks. Davenport re-entered and allowed two hits and she struck out three more for a total of 12 for the game.
Bound Brook’s Casey Miller entered the game with the highest batting average of any All-Star. She went 36-for-70 for a .514 average with six doubles, a triple and 18 RBI this spring. She’s headed for the University of Alabama.
“I always went into it with the mindset that I can hit anyone, but I’m very proud of myself and my team, because I wouldn’t be anywhere without my teammates,” Miller said.
“This game is amazing. It’s fun to see everyone loves the game and knows how to play. We had people going to any position because they’re athletes. It doesn’t matter. Our catcher had to play second because our pitcher had to warm up.”
FINCH’S ACES IN THE HOUSE
Two All-Stars also play for the Finch’s Aces, the softball program out of Diamond Nation and under the name of legendary U.S. Olympic gold medalist Jenny Finch.
Celia Totaro of Hunterdon Central went 2-for-2 with a walk and played center field for Team National. Del Val’s Brightwell pitched three shutout innings for Team American after allowing two hits and one walk with five strikeouts.
“It feels great just to be here,” Totaro said. “I feel comfortable on this team because I’ve spent so many years playing here, and it’s kind of like a full-circle moment. It’s an honor to play with them all. They’ve worked so hard all season. It’s just cool to play together.”
Totaro, Brightwell and Hunterdon Central’s Emily Walsh are all on the Diamond Nation staff, working at the facility during baseball tournament weekends.
COACHES CHIME IN
It wouldn’t be an all-star game without the coaches, who helped these young ladies reach some incredible heights.
Hillsborough’s Iaione, who completed her 35th season at the helm, was actually a late substitution for North Hunterdon’s Anthony Rotundo, who was attending his son’s eighth grade graduation ceremony. This spring, Iaione led the Raiders to their second Group 4 state championship game appearance in three years, where they fell to Marlboro 1-0.
“Simeon asked me to fill in for Anthony,” Iaione said, “and I was honored, being it would be my last time to coach Sarah and the others, especially Sarah because she’s been such an integral part of our success the last few seasons.
“I’m honored to be here, but it’s bittersweet. It’s going to be tough to say goodbye but it’s been a good run.”
Bound Brook’s DeLuca has been the Crusaders’ head coach for 16 seasons, and has worked in the program for 26 campaigns. She was not surprised in the least at seeing up close how talented the All-Stars were, but she may have been just a little awed.
“I’m honored to be a coach, and it’s so exciting to coach such a talented bunch of girls,” DeLuca said. “ I’m excited to be here on this level because the girls worked really hard to get here. They’re all living up to what I saw and read, they’re all doing a great job.”
DeLuca was asked if the final score was as important as the experience itself.
“It’s always nice to win – everyone always wants to win,” she said. “But the girls are having a great time and it’s important to have fun. It’s something they’ll remember for a long time.”