Two years ago, the Hamilton Girls’ Softball Association decided to have their teams join the United States Specialty Sports Association softball travel program in order to get high caliber competition and to keep its players from straying elsewhere. In doing so, they play teams who draw from a large talent pool that encompasses numerous towns.
And then there are the Hamilton 10U Hurricanes, who are as homegrown as it gets. They are one of three Hamilton teams who have made the USSSA National Tournament, and have done so with virtually all township products. Only one lives in Bordentown, and she is a Mercerville School graduate who resided in Hamilton up until a year ago.
Before the Nationals in Salisbury, Maryland, on July 17, the Hurricanes had won eight of the 10 tournaments they played since the fall. They finished second in the remaining two.
“All the tournaments we played in were competitive except one,” manager Mike Walsh said. “Where we used to play against pretty much nearby area teams, we are now playing with the top travel teams in the state—the New Jersey Mystics, South Jersey Mystics, Renegades, New Jersey Flights and New Jersey Flames. At least one or two of them were in every tournament we played in.”
In Maryland, the Hurricanes finished pool play undefeated, and ended the tournament with a 5-2-1 record. They outscored their opponents, 60-12.
The national tournaments are set up like regionals, as there are four held at different sites, but they feature national competition. Hamilton was in the Eastern Nationals, but that includes teams from as far as Utah. To qualify, a squad must finish first or second in a USSSA tournament.
The Hurricanes most impressive feat was winning the USSSA New Jersey State title.
“Winning that championship meant that we all had worked together and played well as a team against tough competitors,” first baseman/pitcher Kennedy Daferede said. “It felt very exciting winning the state championship, but more so defeating great teams.”
Pitcher Ellie Miller felt that her team was ready.
“It was a huge accomplishment, and coach Mike had been preparing us all year long for it,” Miller said. “It made us proud to be able to win against the best teams in New Jersey. We knew we made our parents and coaches proud because they were jumping up and down after our championship game.”
And the adults are as much a part of the program as the kids. Walsh is assisted by Chris Miller and Chris Riddell and has had a huge backing from the parents.
“This team has been together since they were six and seven in T-ball,” Walsh said. “We have a great group of girls and great group of families and sometimes that’s hard to find these days. Every parent on the team cares about the other kids as much of their own, which kind of makes it work.”
Miller gives Walsh the credit for that, but adds that the chemistry among the girls is also huge.
“We all have a talent that we bring to the team but it all starts with the culture Coach Mike sets for us,” she said. “But yes, my teammates are my best friends. I look forward to practices knowing that I’ll get to be with them. The best thing is we all want each other to do well and when someone has a rough day we try to pick each other up. I also like that we all make each other laugh.”
On the field, however, it’s strictly business.
“By moving to USSSA, we face greater competition,” Daferede said. “Moving up to this higher level of play has helped our team grow as softball players. We have learned a lot from our competitors and we’ve learned and grown from the mistakes that we make. It is important for us to represent the community by doing well and showing good sportsmanship.”
Seven of the players were part of last year’s outfit that played USSSA competition for the first time, along with five girls a year older. Those five were replaced by girls coached on the Red team last year by Tony Lacy (the USSSA team is Blue). Despite several young players in tough competition for the first time, Hamilton went 27-13 and qualified for nationals in 2018.
“By playing tougher competition last year, this year our team was more experienced and better prepared,” Daferede said. “Last year we got to feel how real softball was played. We got to experience how to play with greater competition. This year; our team knows what to expect for nationals and has a better understanding of the game.”
Miller felt the biggest takeaways Hamilton got from last year were confidence, the knowledge it could compete with elite teams, and displaying sportsmanship.
“We learned we just need to play our game,” she said. “As Coach Mike always tells us ‘It’s not who you play, it’s how you play’. And also to ‘Stay even,’ which has helped us to better approach games.”
Miller is a huge key. After not pitching much last year, she has been outstanding with her arm and bat.
“She has a ton of speed as our leadoff hitter and when she’s not pitching she plays shortstop,” Walsh said “She worked very hard at pitching, goes to lessons. In between lessons, she’s practicing. She worked on refining her fastball and changes her speeds, which you don’t see at this age. Most pitchers are just trying to throw strikes.”
Bianca Walsh also pitches and plays short, as well as first. According to her dad, “she’s got a good fastball that she spots in and out, up and down. We try to make sure all of our pitchers can do that. She throws hard, she spots it, she changes speeds. And she’s a pretty good hitter.”
Catching is Francesca Castellano, who “has probably made most improvement of anyone on the team. She didn’t get as much time as last year but is excellent at receiving pitches and frames pitches very well for a 10 year old. People were running on us early in the year and now she is throwing people out at second and third base. She made her weakness her strength, and she’s an excellent hitter.”
Daferede, “one of the best athletes on the team,” is at first, Kelsey Loughlin plays second and Ryane Riddell is on third. Daferede burns up the base paths and is also the No. 3 pitcher and provides Miller and Walsh some necessary rest. Loughlin has taken “a huge jump” in her level of competition after playing with the Red team last year and has become “very stable at second.” Riddell is also very athletic, as she also plays basketball and soccer. She has a big bat “and there’s not much she can’t do in the field.”
The outfielders are Amber Buck, McKenna Fisher, Ava Umansky, Charlie Taylor (the team’s lone 9-year-old) and Kailyn Prekop.
Buck plays center field and third “and has made huge contributions at both.” Fisher “has drastically increased the level of her contributions to the team’s success” has become a solid hitter and consistent outfielder. Umansky, Taylor and Prekop all made the jump from the Red team and have made the adjustment to a higher level of play. Unfortunately, Prekop broke her leg and now must provide her support from the dugout.
It is a cast that encompasses all three township school districts, which is good news for Hamilton West, Nottingham and Steinert. It’s also a group that wins together and has fun together.
“A big part of softball is working as a team,” Daferede said. “It is very hard to work together if you are not close or do not know a lot about your teammates. The girls on our team are very close and are constantly talking and joking with each other.”
But they are no joke when it comes to winning.
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Also making the nationals were the HGSA 12U and 16U teams.
The 12Us played with a slew of underage players and were 39-27-2 entering nationals They are managed by George Simonka and the roster includes Katie Simonka, Kaila Castiglione, Tuleen Ali, Natalie Pogorzelski, Angelina Minerva, Gia Dimeglio, Marcella Samayoa, Kara Weaver, Kyleigh Mihalik, Melody Webb, Erin Erdie and Kayla Foy.
The 16Us went to nationals with a 41-11 record. Coached by Bob Bocock, the team includes several players familiar to local high school fans. The roster features Alyssa Bistany, Becca Bocock, Erin Dewispelaere, Kameko Miraglia, Julia Hannawacker, Avery Kontura, Sage Moore, Liz Mullen, Giana Rappoccio, Lillian Torres, Michaela Weber and Holly Muni.
Manager Diana Piscotta guided the 8U team to a 19-7 record with a roster of Gabriella Piscotta, Elia Castellano, Hailey King, Isabella Mayer, Addison Mccabe, Zoe Vanselous, Emily Onorati, Lea Prosdocimo, Ava Prosdocimo, Addyson Sudnick, Sophia Renalt, Lauren Miller and Mikayla Umansky.