Steinert High School softball coach Jean Ruppert was ecstatic about winning a state tournament trophy, a prize she had waited a long time to claim.
But it was the journey to the 2016 NJSIAA Group III championship, not the destination, that Ruppert felt was most important.
“This feels better than I thought it would because of the group of kids I got to work with,” Ruppert said after Steinert’s 6-2 win June 11 over Middletown South in the title game at Kean University. It sent shock waves through New Jersey as the Spartans were unranked and the defending-champion Eagles were ranked No. 2 in the state.
“I’ve always been blessed with good players and good kids, but this group had that little something extra special and bought into what we wanted to try to do,” Ruppert said. “They worked really hard, stayed together.
“I told them ‘As coaches all we want is for you to experience what it feels like to be a team like this. Not just the trophies and the championships and that kind of stuff. But just how close you all are and how everything comes together. You’re there for one another, and somebody picks you up.’”
Steinert had contributors galore in winning their second state title overall and first since 2004. Courtney Danser—a red-hot hitter throughout the states—had two hits and a run scored. Grace Sperrazza had a hit and a run. Kelly Keane had her biggest offensive outburst of the year with a hit and two RBI. Kasey Giordano drove in a run.
And that was just the offense.
Defensively, senior Kaley Wise threw a four-hitter with four strikeouts to win her first start since the state opener. Her underclassmen teammates could not have been happier.
“I’m just so proud of her and so happy for her,” Danser said. “She deserves it more than anything else.”
“She did amazing,” catcher Madison Balke said. “She pitched a great game.”
It would have been much tougher, however, were it not for Balke and rightfielder Morgan Comfort teaming up on what could arguably be considered Steinert’s defensive play of the year.
With the game scoreless in the top of the second, the Eagles had runners on second and third with one out. Jordyn Dellevalle lifted a fly ball to Comfort in right. The junior made the catch in perfect throwing position and threw a one-hopper to Balke, who made the catch in front of the plate before turning to lunge at baserunner Sarah Riso. Balke made the tag and held the ball as the two collided.
“Huge,” Ruppert said. “It sent them a message. We knew they didn’t have a lot of speed, but in the early part of the game you have to challenge somebody and get something rolling, and we stopped them.”
“That set our momentum up and just gave us a great point to go off of,” Danser said.
Comfort was planning what to do before the ball even came her way.
“I was just thinking before the play ‘OK, if a ball comes to me in the air, I have to catch it and gun it home because I know she’s going,’” she said. “I kind of let instincts take over. And Maddy did such a great job with the tag. I was like, ‘Oh my God, Maddy, please, please want this.’”
Balke, who is a true gamer behind the plate, definitely wanted it.
“I just had to do everything I could to get that girl out,” the junior said. “I saw her coming, and I was far away so I had to dive and just go for it. It was an amazing throw, perfect. It was right on-line.”
It set a tone for the rest of the game, and Steinert carried the momentum into the bottom of the second by scoring twice. They never relinquished the lead in avenging a 3-0 loss to South in last year’s Central Jersey Group III final.
The Spartans used that as motivation more than the fact they were unranked.
“We didn’t really think about that, we just thought about redemption from last year,” Balke said. “Rankings don’t mean much,” Keane said. “Just come out and play the game and do the best you can, and whoever is the best will come out on top.”
There seemed to be varying opinions from the players as to when they began to realize Steinert (27-4) was capable of winning it all. One thing is certain, the Spartans peaked at the right time. After a 1-2 start, Steinert won 21 of its final 22 games.
“The very first game, you could feel the chemistry,” Keane said. “We all played with each other since literally we started playing. It was just amazing to win this together.”
Comfort agreed, saying, “I thought it the whole time. We have a great group of girls and I love every single one of them. I’m so happy we did what we did. We’re all each other’s best friends, we’ve got each other’s backs all the time.”
Danser’s confidence in winning states was more of a gradual process.
“Honestly, it just all of a sudden happened,” she said. “You’re always thinking about it. As it just kept happening we were like ‘We’re not gonna lose, were just going to keep going.’ And then we just kept winning.”
Ruppert, who has now won a Mercer County Tournament and state title since returning as coach in 2009, never really put the ultimate prize ahead of the next game.
“I try not to let myself go there,” she said. “Maybe other coaches can do that. I’m not one of them. I just think, ‘Who’s our next opponent, what do we need?’ And I try to get them in a rhythm so they can feel like this is no different than a CVC game on an April afternoon. That’s kind of what we went with.
“We tried to keep it out of their minds about titles and all that kind of stuff. Let’s just go play another softball game. We’re on a college campus today, just go out and enjoy the experience and go play the way you know how.”
Rounding out the roster were seniors Tyler Valenza and Tyra Torres, junior Cassidy Wood, sophomores Julia Martine, Cora Bridgers, Carli Backlund and Taylor Hawkes and freshmen Kaylee Whittaker and Nicole Cerasi. Whittaker was phenomenal, winning four straight state games before Ruppert opted to go with Wise in the final due to her experience.
Ruppert also praised her coaching staff of Adam Jankos, James Angelino, Jen Melker and newcomer Kim Murl, for working tirelessly throughout the season. Jankos is the unofficial “state champion” mentor at Steinert this year, since he also coached two-time state wrestling champion Brandon Cray.
“The feelings are the same, the nerves are the same,” he said of going into a wrestling state final versus a softball state final. “I was probably a little more nervous with the softball game. I was a little more confident with Brandon because he won last year. With this, I wasn’t 100 percent sure because I haven’t been in softball as long as I’ve been in wrestling. So you’re unsure what to expect.”
When it was over, however, everyone was sure of how they felt.
“There’s no words to describe how good this feels honestly,” Keane said.
“It’s just so crazy,” Danser said. “I’m just so proud of everyone.”
Asked if it felt the way she imagined it would, Comfort broke into a massive grin.
“A million times better!” she said.
The last word belongs to Wise, who lived every softball player’s dream by pitching her team to a state title in the final game of her high school career.
“You can never imagine how something like this is going to feel,” said the Alvernia-bound hurler. “It feels so much better, you get so much more excitement. And it’s not until it actually happens that you realize ‘Hey, we’re state champs!’”
And with just Wise, Valenza, Torres and Sperrazza graduating, Wise can’t wait to see what the team can do next year.
“I have all the faith in the world in these girls,” she said. “I think they can go just as far as we did this year.”
Actually, since there will be a Tournament of Champions next year, the Spartans could go even further. But since this is the program’s first state title in a dozen years, it’s best to just enjoy it for a while.