The 2015 high school softball season gets underway Wednesday and there’s been plenty of changes to the local landscape since the final out of 2014 was recorded in Toms River last June.
With star players moving on to the next level, returning standouts ready to take the next step, and with incoming talent flooding onto local rosters, 2015 promises to be another exciting season in the Courier-News area.
Here’s a look at some of the storylines heading into the new campaign.
The coaching carousel
Seven new head coaches take the reins in the area, including one at a perennial powerhouse that has struggled in recent season.
Kelly Karp is the new skipper at Hunterdon Central, replacing Theresa Lang, who stepped down after back-to-back 11-12 years since replacing the legendary Pete Fick.
Karp, who pitched for Edison High School before graduating in 2005, knows the proud history of the Central program, having been annually victimized by the Red Devils during her time with the Eagles. Karp played for Montclair State University and has done some coaching since, including spending a season on the Wardlaw-Hartridge staff. This is her first run as a head coach at the varsity level.
A former Hunterdon Central standout under Fick is a first-time head coach a little ways down Route 31, as Megan Cegielski takes over for Holly Abitz at South Hunterdon. Cegielski was a three-year starter at Hunterdon Central before spending four years playing at Kean University. She was named third-team All-Area by the Courier News as a senior in 2010.
Montgomery’s new coach has plenty of varsity experience in the area, as Ken DiGraziano replaces Heather Pino, who departs after three years. DiGraziano, who spent several years leading Gill St. Bernard’s, spent the 2010 campaign at the Watchung Hills helm. He coached Golda Och Academy in West Orange last season.
Voorhees will have a new coach for the second straight season, as Sarah Hamm replaces Christina Grodkiewicz, who is on maternity leave. Hamm, a former catcher at Hackettstown High School and Kean University, coached the Vikings’ JV last season after serving as JV coach at Roxbury in 2013.
Franklin has a new skipper for the first time since 2009, as former Pingry assistant and Franklin Middle School coach Lauren Atlas takes over the program from Melissa Vaccaro. Atlas played at Old Bridge and Elmira College, before spending five season at the helm of the FMS team and then the next three years on the Pingry staff. She is in her ninth year as a teacher at Franklin High School and has also coached some nationally successful club teams.
The new head coach at Gill St. Bernard’s is Nicole Spiotta, a former Morristown HS and Drew University standout who has spent the past two seasons as head coach at Union County College and Raritan Valley CC, respectively.
Plainfield rounds out the list with their fourth head coach in as many seasons, as Janai Wade takes the reins from Darren Salter.
There was also one notable changes among the assistant-coaching ranks in the area, as the state’s all-time winningest softball coach has a new home. Pete Fick, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant at Voorhees, moves into Somerset County, where he will serve under Chip Carver on the Pingry staff along with one of his former players at Hunterdon Central, Maggie Murphy.
Hall of Famer
While Fick was inducted into the New Jersey State Coaches Hall of Fame in 1991, that organization has a new member, as Hillsborough coach Cheryl Iaione was enshrined Sunday.
Iaione, who has been at the Raiders helm since 1995, has compiled a 334-165 record, including eight conference titles and two sectional crowns. She has also led Hillsborough to 12 of the past 13 Somerset County finals and won six championships.
One Skyland Conference coach and two local Union County coaches are within striking distance of the 100-win plateau.
Westfield’s Caitlin MacDonald needs six wins for 100, Union Catholic’s Ed Ryan needs seven, while Bound Brook’s Shannon DeLuca is 11 away from the milestone. All three should reach the mark this year.
Three more coaches should hit milestones early next season – barring incredible runs this year — as Somerville’s Kathy Dailey is 24 wins from 100 and Watchung Hills’ Mike D’Alessandro needs 25 to get to the century mark.
Delaware Valley’s Asa Whitaker needs 23 wins to become the area’s second active coach to reach 500. He would join South Plainfield’s Don Panzarella, who begins this season with 657 wins, good for No. 3 all-time in state history.
The Skyland Shuffle
The Skyland Conference has realigned again, this time going to four division for the first time, as Rutgers Prep joins, making it a 24-team league.
Here’s the alignment:
Delaware Division: Bridgewater-Raritan, Hillsborough, Hunterdon Central, Immaculata, Watchung Hills.
Raritan Division: Franklin, Montgomery, North Hunterdon, Phillipsburg, Ridge, Warren Hills.
Valley Division: Belvidere, Bernards, Delaware Valley, Pingry, Somerville, Voorhees.
Mountain Division: Bound Brook, Gill St. Bernard’s, Mount St. Mary, North Plainfield, Rutgers Prep, South Hunterdon.
Each team plays each divisional opponent twice, with those games counting toward the conference title. Each Delaware and Raritan team faces off once per season, with the Valley and Mountain doing the same, but those games will not count toward division titles.
New-look Union County Conference
The Union County Conference has also realigned, with teams competing in three divisions. Only games in-division will count toward the standings:
Watchung Division: A.L. Johnson, Cranford, Elizabeth, Linden, Governor Livingston, A.L. Johnson, New Providence, Westfield.
Mountain Division: Brearley, Dayton, Rahway, Roselle Park, Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Summit, Union, Union Catholic.
Valley Division: Benedictine, Hillside, Kent Place, Oak Knoll, Plainfield, Roselle, Roselle Catholic, St. Mary’s.
The Somerset County Tournament is making a major change to its schedule, as the final is slated for a Sunday for the first time in at least two decades.
The final, which has always been played on a Saturday night, is schedule for Sunday night, May 17 at Nap Torpey Field. Tournament director and Bridgewater-Raritan athletics director John Maggio said the change was being made in an effort not to conflict with the county baseball final.
The baseball final is currently slated for Friday night, May 15 at TD Bank Ballpark, with Saturday night put aside as the rain date. The rain date for the softball final would be Monday, May 18.
Staff writer Simeon Pincus – CourierSoftball@aol.com and on Twitter @SimeonPincus