The Watchung Hills High School softball team might give off the impression it’s heading down the shore this weekend for an outing at the beach, as opposed to preparing for the biggest game of its careers with a chance to do something no team in program history has ever accomplished.
Slated to face Washington Township at 11 a.m. Sunday in the NJSIAA Group IV championship game at Toms River East High School, Watchung Hills continues to relish the underdog label it has carried since the postseason began, one that has carried the Warriors to 25 victories, their second straight Somerset County championship and their first sectional title in 18 years.
Now, having reached the state championship game, they’re still embracing that ever-burning desire to prove everyone wrong. Well, everyone but themselves.
“We all know we can do it, even if everyone else doesn’t think so,” junior leftfielder McKayla Brady said. “And I think that makes us want it so much more. We just want to prove people wrong. Nothing makes me want to win more than someone telling me I can’t do it.”
“I love being the underdog, and I still think that we are underdogs in some ways,” said senior ace Abby Cline, who led her team past heavily-favored Hillsborough in the county final the past two seasons, to road wins with shutouts in the sectional semis and final, and to a stunning victory over powerhouse Livingston in the Group IV semifinals.
“I think there are definitely some teams that are better than us (on paper), but being underdogs, you want it more, while the better teams think they deserve it. We know that we might not be the best team, but we definitely want this more than other people do.”
While it might have been frustrating at times for Watchung Hills not to receive the respect and accolades it deserves from the so-called experts, the best part of being an underdog is the near-absence of pressure. The Warriors are a very loose bunch, led by even-keeled upperclassmen like Cline and Dana Mertz, as well as junior three-year starters in Brady, second baseman Jessica Gaeta and shortstop Meghan Kovac, whose glove anchors a near-flawless defensive unit that has been largely responsible for Watchung Hills’ success. But to be able to carry that attitude onto the field, maintaining the fine line between being laidback and being complacent is a credit to the program and the coach that rebuilt it.
“It’s a confidence in our ability to keep our cool and overcome,” said third-year coach Mike D’Alessandro, who has posted a 55-21 record since taking over a team coming off two straight six-win seasons. “We have a good approach, and I think that approach serves us well. There is a little bit of that air about the way we’re going about things now, which is exactly where I want to be, and we’ve been there locked in for about a month now of feeling that way. So I do believe there’s really nobody we can’t beat if we play our game.”
“We just have to be really loose, which we’ve been very good about,” Cline said. “In the beginning of the game we’re all excited and happy. Everybody has to have the right mindset of winning and we can’t get really stressed when something bad happens, because that’s when teams fall. We’re very good about making an error and saying ‘Hey, it’s fine,’ and we’re all smiles. We have to be ready and relaxed and know that we’re capable of amazing things. And we’ve shown that.”
There is no doubt nobody is taking Watchung Hills for granted now and that the Warriors are finally receiving the attention and respect they deserve. And while that is certainly a welcome change it isn’t going to change their approach or their attitude.
“We always want respect,” Brady said. “But whether they give it to us or not, we’re always going to go out there and play our hardest and play our best. We all know we can do it and I think that’s a big part of it. We all know we can win this game, and if we all go in there as loose as we have been, everything’s going to work out okay. Whether we win or lose we’re going to play our best and play our game.”
“I’m so proud of this team” said D’Alessandro, who admitted he never even considered a state championship in the preseason. “I feel like we’ve accomplished so much together because we all got on the same page. Those goals we talked about early in the year, we hit most of them, and now it is house money.”