There seems to be no end in sight. When it comes to the Robbinsville High softball team, it appears greatness has no ceiling.
During a spectacular 2018 campaign, the Ravens went 26-2, won their third straight Mercer County Tournament title and second consecutive NJSIAA Group II crown, while reaching the Group II championship game for the seventh time in eight years. They are 4-3 in those state finals, having beaten Ramsey in each of the last two.
And it isn’t getting old.
“Not at all,” junior catcher Shea Walsh said. “Definitely the first time it’s an exciting feeling winning your first state title, but I think the excitement this year was just as equal. It’s a great feeling for your team, very satisfying; and I think that winning two in a row made it even better.”
Junior shortstop Chelsea Manto, the spectacular leadoff hitter who makes Robbinsville tick, felt defending a title is even better than gaining the first one.
“Oh definitely,” she said. “Coming back and winning it again just shows how strong our team is; that we can do it twice in a row.”
Junior outfielder Allie Taylor put the championships on equal ground, and made a good point while doing so.
“I think it’s exactly the same,” she said. “It’s a state championship, I don’t think one can be any worse than the other.”
Taylor did admit, however, “It may have meant more to me this year because I was on the field and I was a lot more involved.”
Was she ever. Taylor hit .466 with 11 doubles, two triples, a home run, 23 RBI and 34 runs scored. What makes that so impressive is she was only third on the team in hitting.
Manto, who has a chance of becoming the Colonial Valley Conference’s all-time career hits leader next year, batted .611 with 58 hits, 41 steals, 44 runs, seven doubles and 13 walks. A better table setter did not exist in Mercer.
The speedster, whose winter track exploits indicate she could be a sprinting star were it not for softball, understands her worth.
“Getting an early lead is always a key component of our games,” she said. “When we score in the first inning and get on base early in the game it rattles the other team, gives us a little confidence that we can have a good game. So I just use that to my advantage, use my speed, do the best I can to get on base so my team can drive me in.”
Many of Walsh’s team-high 33 RBI came courtesy of Manto zipping home on one of her hits.
“Playing with Chelsea is just a blast,” Walsh said. “Having her as the first hitter definitely makes our team more confident. She always manages to get on base. We know if Chelsea gets on we’re inclined to score one or two. She’s a huge asset to our team.”
As is Walsh, who batted .529 with a team-high 33 RBI, eight doubles, two triples, three homers and 44 runs scored. She also handled the talented pitching duo of senior Kate Hunter and junior Mackenzie Medders.
Taylor feels both veterans are players for the entire team to look up to.
“Their softball IQ is definitely really high,” she said. “They’re always trying to help us. I had Chelsea in front of me because I was in left field. She was always trying to help me out because outfield’s not my primary position. She was teaching me things, she always had my back and so did Shea, especially with hitting. They’ve been playing a long time against these high school pitchers, they know how they work and they help everyone on the team out.”
That help paid off throughout the lineup. Other impressive stats came from Olivia Moser (.407, 29 RBI, 7 doubles, 2 triples, 2 homers), Devon Witt (.364, 22 RBI), Sarah Mazalewski (.343, 11 RBI), Hunter (.276, 2 HR, 10 RBI), Medders (.321), Sophie Billings (.267, 12 RBI, 12 runs), Emily Rubino (.273, 11 runs) and Alyssa Whitman (.270, 15 RBI, 12 runs).
Of that bunch, only Billings, Hunter and Rubino graduate.
In the circle, Hunter was 18-2 with 119 strikeouts while Medders was 8-0 with 36 Ks.
“I can’t compare them, they are completely different pitchers,” Walsh said. “One throws righty (Hunter) and one throws lefty. Their pitches are completely opposite in movement. They both have different work ethics and they both make my job extremely easy and extremely fun. I’ve created great relationships with both of them. I think that’s really important having that catcher-pitcher relationship. The connection with catching them made the season more enjoyable.”
It was enjoyable for all involved until the final night of the season, when Lodi Immaculate Conception took a 12-2 victory over 2nd-seeded Robbinsville in the 2nd Annual Tournament of Champions semifinals. What made the loss so tough to take is that Steinert beat Lodi IC, 9-0, in the championship game, and the Ravens went 3-0 against the Spartans this year.
“Definitely a little bit of frustration, if I’m gonna be honest,” Walsh said. “We knew we were capable of beating Steinert. We’ve been frenemies for a while. We have a history with them so we’re very happy for them and their win and that’s awesome. At the same time it brings some frustration knowing we could have claimed that title and there was an opportunity for us to win. Obviously this wasn’t our year.”
Manto felt the same way about the Spartans, many of whom she knows and has played with.
“I do have some friends on the team and I knew that was a good win for them,” she said. “I also knew if it was us in the finals we would have had a good chance of winning. I’m not saying we would have won, but we would have had a good chance. I guess I was a little frustrated because I knew we could have done better and made it, but I’m glad that they won.”
Following the loss, coach Lisa Rich—who the players credited for keeping things loose and enjoyable during the season—stated her dislike for the TOC, feeling it’s unfair to five teams that won a state title to have to end their season with a loss.
A quick poll of her players provided a split decision.
“I think the Tournament of Champions is only really exciting or fun for the team that wins it,” Walsh said. “I think it brings down the joy and excitement of winning the state championship just because you’re going into a tournament where you want to win and you lose; and you lose that spirit gist of it. I think it’s a great opportunity to compete with higher level teams, but at same time, it would be better to end the season winning states and enjoying that achievement.”
Taking the opposite side is Manto.
“I like the idea because I think it’s a good competition,” she said. “You see how much further you can go. It introduces you to new teams, more playing time and stuff like that.”
And straddling the fence is Taylor.
“I’m not really sure,” she said. “I feel like that loss didn’t really change how we felt about our season. I think the Tournament of Champs, you can play more games with each other, and all we wanted was to play as many games with each other as we could. But it also does take away, because we’re ending the season on the loss.”
With so many starters returning, they may have another shot at it next year. While nothing is ever assured, on paper Robbinsville will be a Group II state contender once again.
And while the players could not come together on the TOC, they did agree on one thing—it could not detract from a great season overall. Once the initial disappoint subsided, the full body of work stood tall.
“It just took a few minutes after the game to re-sort ourselves,” Walsh said. “After that we were able to look back at our state championship and celebrate that on the bus ride home. Even though we lost we look at the season as a whole and are very happy with the way the season played out.”
They should be, since it played out as successfully as so many before it.