From April 1, 2016 through April 23 of this year, the Robbinsville High School softball team had gone 76-14 with three Mercer County Tournament titles and two NJSIAA Group II state championships.
The common thread through all that success has been Chelsea Manto playing shortstop and batting leadoff, and Shea Walsh catching and hitting second. They are not only teammates, but best buds ever since sitting in Miss McGrath’s third-grade class at Sharon School. Both bat left-handed, both star in other sports, both are headed to Division I college programs, and both will miss the heck out of each other when they part ways on the softball field.
“We have been best friends for a really long time,” Manto said. “Softball has just brought us closer together. During games and practices we just work together and it gets us better because we compete, but it’s always a good thing. It’s friendly competition.”
Walsh added that, “It all started in rec and little league, we were always with each other. We were always put together. From there we both switched (to batting) lefty at the same time and formed this relationship that took us through little league, the World Series, school ball and travel ball. We’re constantly challenging each other and supporting each other. We’re like inseparable.”
The two knew of each other from rec leagues but the bond solidified as third-grade classmates. Several years later they were part of a Robbinsville team that finished fifth in the Little League World Series (Walsh played on the championship team a year later). They moved on to travel ball with the Witches and are now with the Outlaws.
When they arrived at RHS, they became integral team members as freshmen.
“We were every curious about high school,” Walsh said. “We love softball and for us, Robbinsville softball had such a great reputation. Going in as little freshmen we were really scared but we also knew we were capable of playing at that level. Going in there and having that relationship kind of made us try and do better.”
It also helped them survive.
“Totally,” Walsh said. “We were so young, and knowing we had each other on the field just made us so much more comfortable with the older girls.”
Their comfort level showed at the plate. In 24 at-bats, Walsh hit .667 with two doubles, a homer, 11 RBI and 15 runs scored. In 33 at-bats, Manto hit .545 with two doubles, a triple, six stolen bases and 15 runs scored. They did not play every game, but when they did, Manto led off and Walsh was right behind. It’s how it has been for every team they have ever played for.
“I just remember wanting to share my four years of high school softball with her,” Manto said. “It has always been one-two in the lineup ever since we were little kids. Obviously we wanted to play together on the varsity team and that’s what happened. We wanted to hit one-two and that was set in stone when we were 1-2 in our freshman year, we said we’re never changing.”
There was a slight hitch when coach Lisa Rich moved Walsh to third during their sophomore season. On paper it made sense since Walsh has third-hole power. But the intangibles said otherwise.
“We said this wasn’t right,” Walsh said. “We pulled her aside and said, ‘Is there any way we can switch this up?’ just because we were so used to it. It was just weird not batting behind her, she gave me so much confidence. It kind of messed us both up, with the routine we have. Batting in the third hole definitely messed up my mental game. I was still able to perform, but it was definitely challenging because I’m so used to having her batting right before me. Some people don’t get it but when you play softball it’s a big thing.”
Rich changed things back, and it has remained that way ever since. The results speak for themselves.
With the home stretch of the regular-season and the MCT and state tournaments still looming, the ridiculously fast Manto (with state sprinting speed in winter track) had a career batting average of .528 with 102 stolen bases, 34 walks, 11 doubles, two triples, 43 RBI and 117 runs scored. Entering an April 23 game with Ewing, her 163 hits left her six shy of breaking Nottingham’s Kristin Hallam’s Colonial Valley Conference mark of 168. Interestingly enough, Hallam will attend Hofstra next year and be Hallam’s teammate.
“How awesome is that?” said Walsh of the two CVC hit leaders playing together. “Chelsea totally deserves it. I’m so happy for her, I think that’s awesome.”
Manto feels the record is just a stepping stone to hopefully more championships.
“It would mean a lot but I’m just trying to focus on the team and our success as a team,” said Manto, who noted Hallam was helpful to her in making the decision. “Just one little part of the whole program is me getting to that record. We have other people setting records. Olivia (Moser) got her 100th hit, a lot of people are coming close to their 100th hit. It’s gonna be a good season.”
They also have another player going D-I in Allie Taylor, who will head to Iona after becoming a full-time starter last year.
And while the three are all good friends, it is Walsh and Manto who go back the furthest. They are able to critique each other if they see something amiss, as know how the other one plays better than anyone.
“Shea works really hard behind the plate and works a lot with her catching coach,” Manto said. “She just has a great drive and knows where to hit the ball. She can pick a spot and it goes directly to that spot. She can hit it soft, she can bunt, she’s an all-around hitter. She can bunt, slap and full swing hit.”
Coincidentally, Walsh is headed for Marist University, where former Raven catcher Becca Freeman played. In late April, Walsh had a career mark of .465 with 21 doubles, two triples, four homers, 77 RBI and 111 runs scored. And that’s only part of her game.
“Her arm behind the plate is amazing,” Manto said. “She just throws right to second base and it’s there every time for me to catch and make the tag. That just comes from practice over and over again.”
Walsh has equal praise for her friend as an all-around player.
“She’s obviously an exceptional player in my eyes,” the catcher said. “Her speed is phenomenal and her game revolves around that, which is awesome because not many people are gifted with that. At shortstop there’s nobody like her. She’s one of a kind. She makes every play. I know every time the ball is hit to her the play is gonna be made.”
Both girls feel their other sports have helped them in softball. Manto credits indoor track for making her jaw-dropping speed from home to first even better; and Walsh praises field hockey coach Jennamarie Colicchia for strengthening her mental toughness in athletics.
Between them both, their admiration and dedication to each other has permeated through the rest of the team.
“I think that it helps that we’re such good friends,” Manto said. “We’re kind of role models for the team a little bit and set the example. And when people see us getting along they like to follow that.”
Walsh feels they have what every player needs—a sounding board.
“I think that the way we interact on the field, it’s not just that we’re teammates, it’s a friendship,” Walsh said “When the younger kids and even the seniors see us interact and challenge each other, I think it kind of opens their eyes up to the relationships they can also form with other players. I think that’s important to have someone on the team like that, that you can constantly rely on. For me and Chelsea it’s proved to be very successful and I think it’s kind of helped form our team chemistry as a whole.”
That on-field friendship has precious few weeks remaining before they split for the first time. They will reunite as opponents next autumn when Hofstra meets Marist in the fall season.
“It’s gonna be weird,” Manto said. “We’re gonna be on separate sides. It’s never been like that before.”
“We always talk about it, what are we gonna do without each other?” Walsh said. “It’s going to be an adjustment not having each other. For me, it’s a confidence boost having her. So it will definitely be weird, and we’ll definitely need to adjust. But at the same time, I think we’re going in good directions and honestly, I think we’re both gonna do great things in college.”
After watching the two of them for the past four years, it would be hard to find anyone who would doubt that.