It took first-year coach Krystina Maloney exactly 3-2/3 innings to determine who would be the starting pitcher for the Lawrence High softball team this spring.
Those were the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings of an opening-day loss to Nottingham, in which Sara Bielamowicz came on in relief with the Cardinals trailing 8-0 and showed her stuff. The sophomore entered with runners on second and third and one out in the fourth and did not allow a run. By game’s end, she had allowed one run on three hits while striking out six.
And a decision had been made.
“To be honest, I really didn’t know what I had going into the season,” Maloney said. “I knew Kim Ragazzo graduated, and we needed a pitcher.
“She’s very quiet, and when she came in at the beginning of the season I sat with every girl and said ‘What is your goal for the season?’ She said ‘My goal is to be the starting pitcher.’ After the first game there was no doubt who was my starting pitcher.”
The preseason did the coach no favors as bad weather limited Lawrence to one scrimmage that was played in the snow. She gathered little from that and started Nickki DeFillipo on opening day. After the Stars took their big lead, Bielamowicz entered and made an immediate impact.
“Honestly, I was not scared at all,” she said. “I couldn’t wait for that moment to come.”
Maloney was just glad it did come.
“She came in, and I was like ‘Wow!’” the coach said. “That kind of blew me away. And the next game was against Notre Dame, she started and was solid, and we went to extra innings with them. They couldn’t touch her.”
The result was one of the most overlooked standout seasons in the Colonial Valley Conference this year. Playing on a team that provided little offensive or defensive support, the hurler had a 7-14 record while the Cardinals finished 9-14.
But Bielamowicz had a sterling ERA of 1.82, as 37 of the 75 runs she gave up were unearned. She also struck out 228 batters in 114.2 innings, which not only led the CVC by a wide margin, it also shattered Ragazzo’s single-season mark of 140 last year. With 238 career Ks, Bielamowicz has two years left to break Ragazzo’s career record of 413.
“I knew that I would do well on varsity, but I did not think that I would be the (strikeout) leader,” Bielamowicz said. “Being the strikeout leader was the last thing on my mind when I came into the season. To me, the numbers weren’t that important. What was important to me was winning and doing the best that I could do.”
Bielamowicz was a sports junkie as a young girl, playing basketball, soccer, tennis, ice skating and gymnastics.
“For me, softball was just another sport that I wanted to try,” she said. “I started out by playing tee ball, and since I was pretty good at it, and it was fun as well, I decided to stick with it.”
Bielamowicz began with the Lawrence Little League and played locally for seven years. She then moved to the high-powered Hamilton Girls Softball Association, following in Ragazzo’s footsteps. At the time of the move, she also began playing for the Ewing Edge 12U team.
Even at a young age, she was at home in the circle.
“I’ve been a pitcher for most of my life,” Bielamowicz said. “I started to pitch when I was in my second year of playing Minors, or around the age of 8.”
She also began taking lessons at DPD in Hamilton once a week, and the other six days she would throw with her dad in the backyard. Private pitching coaches also entered the picture.
“Even on vacation, we would pitch,” she said. “And I have had many helpful instructors over the years. Learning new pitches is always hard, but if you practice them, they get easier. To me, repetition is key.”
She repeated herself on to the Cardinals JV team last year and pitched Lawrence to a 7-7 record by striking out a whopping 166 batters. She pitched in one varsity game against Trenton and promptly struck out 10 batters in 3-2/3 innings. Every out but one was via strikeout.
Bielamowicz quickly proved that her game against Trenton–one of the weaker teams in the area–was not a fluke. This year, she had 17 strikeouts in a 12-inning loss to Mercer County Tournament champ Allentown, and 13 against Central Jersey Group IV finalist Steinert.
“I got to see her pitch for JV last year when I was coaching the Notre Dame JV,” Maloney said. “She just evolved tremendously as a player from last year to this year.
“I think a lot of that has to do with her parents. She’s been going to pitching coaches and doing a lot of work in the off-season. She’s playing travel ball, she has had a pitching coach and been really putting in the time and effort all year long and really paid off.”
Maloney called the pitches this year, and Bielamowicz possesses an array of “six or seven pitches” according to the coach, including a rise, change-up and screwball. Each pitch has different movements and speeds, meaning coach and pitcher were able to mix things up effectively to keep hitters off balance. Maloney revealed the go-to pitch when they wanted a strikeout, but Bielamowicz said, “I would like to keep that a secret.”
Bielamowicz feels one of the biggest keys to strikeouts is getting that first pitch over.
“Getting ahead on the count is always helpful, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” she said. “I don’t let the count upset me and get into my head. I was also confident in my pitches, which is a big help.”
As the season went on, Maloney began to forget she was throwing a 10th-grader out on the rubber.
“You have to kind of take a step back and say ‘Wow, this kid is 15.’ To see her doing things at this age is incredible,” the coach said. “No one saw her coming this year. Everyone was saying ‘Ragazzo is gone, Lawrence isn’t gonna have a pitcher.’
“Now everybody is saying ‘Wait a minute, who’s this girl striking out 12 batters a game?’”
What the coach really likes about her hurler, is the intensity she maintains no matter what occurs during a game. Whether it’s an error that allows an unearned run, or a lack of clutch pitching, the focus never wanes.
“From the first pitch of the game to the last pitch of the game, it didn’t matter what the score or what the inning was, she had a job to do and was gonna get it done,” Maloney said. “She never allowed any frustration to show.”
Despite her young age, Bielamowicz is playing travel ball with TNT Gold, an 18U Showcase team out of Quakertown, Pa.
And after bursting on the varsity scene this year, she is already excited for next.
“I am ecstatic about next year,” Sara said. “I am excited to come back and play for a wonderful coach. I will miss our seniors, yet I am looking forward to the new players.
“I am especially going to miss my catcher, Amanda Toto. You have to give her credit. She’s amazing. A pitcher is only as good as her catcher.”
That in itself is quite a compliment for Toto, because Bielamowicz certainly was one heck of a pitcher.