The glory days are back for the Robbinsville Little League softball program. Not that they were ever too far gone, but they are back in full force after a toe stub in 2018.
The 12-year-old team went 4-2 in the East regional in Bristol, Connecticut, advancing to the finals of the elimination bracket and finishing third overall. The 10-year-olds won the state title on July 21, and started their regional tournament July 29 in Pittston, Pennsylvania, as this edition went to press. Both teams impressed all summer.
The regional performance was another sign that the 12s had returned to the perch they held for nearly a decade before being knocked off by Bordentown in last year’s District 12 Tournament. They grinded their way through districts, cruised to the Section 3 title and reverted to having to grind again in the states.
“I kept telling the girls we have a goal, let’s get back to Bristol, that’s a tradition,” manager Scott Veisz said. “And our second goal is the World Series. Take care of one thing at a time. But always focus on the next goal. I always tell everyone, ‘Don’t get crazy, keep fighting through it.”
The 10s, meanwhile, have been carried by strong pitching and outstanding defense, actually winning its Section 3 final by getting just one first-inning hit, en route to a 1-0 victory. The hit came from Aleaya O’Neal, who scored on a wild pitch for the game’s only run against Marlboro.
“Our defense has been fantastic,” manager Mike Sabol said. “We’ve been saying all along our defense is what’s been carrying us. It definitely won sectionals for us.”
The 12s’ march through the districts was the stuff ulcers are made of as they defeated West Windsor in walk-off fashion in both the opening game and the title match. Juleesa Alvarado singled in the game-winning run for one win, and Caroline Walls scored from third on a passed ball in the other.
Robbinsville won easily in the sectionals, getting past Milltown and Lincroft twice, but it was back to some heart-pounding in the states. Robbinsville beat Swedesboro 3-2 in the opener when Madison Manning provided a two-out, walk-off RBI hit. That was followed by victories over Little Ferry, 4-1, and Swedesboro, 1-0, to reach the regionals for the sixth time in seven years.
“We sort of cruised through the sectionals,” said Veisz, who is assisted by Steve Krebs and Tom Walls. “But we had to work and battle and play good softball to compete and prevail in the districts and states. It’s exciting for the fans and also stressful, but don’t get me wrong, it’s good softball we’re playing. I have to give kudos to the other teams, we played against some really good competition.”
The big question is, what makes the 12s so good under pressure? The manager feels it’s not complicated.
“The key thing here is we try to keep things simple,” Veisz said. “We tell them to keep their emotions level; not get too high or too low, just continue to battle. We tell them to try to do their job. Play good defense, throw strikes, and hit the ball when you can and hopefully good things will happen. It’s simple but the interesting part about it is, every inning is a grind and we’re playing inning to inning and we’re trying to win each inning. We’re just winning more innings than other teams. That’s a testament to their focus and their teamwork, honestly.”
Like any good team, it starts with the pitcher, and Robbinsville has a good one in Katie Ziliani.
“She’s an excellent pitcher, she throws lots of strikes, she’s really focused and knows what she’s doing,” Veisz said. “She’s an even-keeled kid and doesn’t get caught up in anything, she just knows how to pound the zone. She was on the 12s last year, and didn’t pitch but did play the field.”
Abby Veisz, the manager’s daughter, is the catcher and “is a happy, free-spirited kind of kid who loves to catch and is working hard and mixes well with all our pitchers. She’s doing a good job framing pitches, throwing to second, keeping runners at bay. She’s not afraid to try and throw out girls or keep them close.”
The infield features Manning on first (and also outfield), Walls on second, Haley Krebs at short and Sorella Gallucci on third.
“Madison’s gotten very seasoned at first base and is a big target for our infielders to throw at, and she’s a really good outfielder,” Veisz said. “Caroline is a quick, little kid and really seasoned at second. She knows where to be and what to do on bunt situations.”
On the left side of the infield, “Haley is a superstar at short. She has great range, is very mature. She has an excellent arm, can go back on the ball to catch bloopers or go right at the ball. Sorella is a rock at third. Extremely athletic, a very strong player who can pretty much do anything. She’s also a top pitcher. She’s got a different style than Katie, but very effective. We like to use them both.”
The outfield consists of Alvarado in left, Lily Ondy in center and Jordyn Pepper in right.
“Jules has done a great job in left, she works hard, loves softball and will do whatever you ask of her,” Veisz said. “Lily is an excellent center fielder with great range. She’s one of those kids who loves to play center when everyone else wants to be in the infield. She wants to run down every ball she can. And Jordyn is a natural outfielder with a good glove, good range. She quietly does her job and doesn’t make much noise but gets after it.”
Also contributing have been third baseman/outfielder Riley Mikolajczak, “who does a good job at both positions,” and 11-year-old outfielder Ava Aldarelli, who “is so into it, and she’ll do whatever we ask her.”
Veisz’s mantra has been for the team to never give up.
“Quite honestly that served us well, because that works,” he said. “They’re buying in to, ‘Hey, we never quit.’ It’s sinking in. We consider hitting our strength, we know how to play defense and we just kind of grind it out.”
Unlike the 12s, the 10-year-olds blew through their district bracket, beating three teams by a combined 26-0. It got a little tighter in the sectionals. Aside from a 10-0 win over Sayreville, Robbinsville squeaked past Marlboro 3-0 and the aforementioned 1-0 game.
O’Neal not only scored the only run in the title game against Marlboro, she also pitched a no-hitter. In five district and sectional games she did not allow an earned run.
“She was dominant,” Sabol said. “She’s obviously our leader. She has unbelievable control; I think she might have walked two batters in those five games. And she mixes her pitches up well.”
O’Neal is aided by catcher Keira Pierini, who caught every inning of every game “and did a great job on the defensive end,” according to Sabol.
Because O’Neal is so hard to get around on, batters have trouble pulling the ball which means the right side of the infield is key for Robbinsville. Gab Sabol handles first and Ryan Penzone is on second.
“Gab had a lot of plays over there and also hit very well,” Sabol said. “Ryan also plays very good defense and really hit well in the district.”
The right fielder also gets a lot of action when O’Neal pitches, and Jess Shoenfeld threw several players out at first on balls that looked like they may be hits.
Rounding out the defense are Maura Halpin at short, Lexi Lopez on third, Hayden Bustos in center and Lucy Canuso in left. Rotating into the outfield are Adriana Cepeda, Hailey Bustos and Katie Murphy.
“I thought we had a chance to do well because we won the eight and nine year old tournament, which was more of a town-based tournament with our district teams,” said Sabol, who is assisted by Tom Shoenfeld and Jason Penzone. “I did feel confident in this team.”