By Wayne Witkowski
Meghan Conroy can’t wait for the opening game April 1 after pitching Jackson Liberty High School’s softball team to its first Ocean County championship last season and a Shore Conference B South Division co-championship — its third division championship in school history.
“It looks really good. We’re all super excited and working hard for this season,” Conroy said.
She said she has improved on her riser that goes with a fastball, changeup, drop and curveball as she prepares for this season and a college career starting in the fall at Drexel University. Conroy also batted .385 with 11 RBIs. With seven starters back, she said she’ll have a lot of run support this year.
Jackson Liberty beat Donovan Catholic High School, 9-7, for the Ocean County championship last season.
Jackson Liberty finished No. 5 in one Shore Conference poll last year — ironically behind No. 3-ranked Donovan Catholic — and No. 10 in New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Group III in a state poll.
The Lions, who were 21-5 last year, play Hudson Catholic Regional High School in the Mount St. Dominic Invitational Tournament in its opener at 4:15 p.m.
“Luckily, we have a lot of our team returning from last year, and I love that everyone in the field is looking forward to building on the success we had together in the past,” coach Laura Borrelli said. “We are very much on the same page and know how to work well with each other. Everyone is loose but knows we are there with a purpose every day. We push each other while supporting each other. The chemistry is great.”
Conroy will pitch to senior Brianna Holder, who is moved over from third base, where she played the past three years, to replace graduated catcher Chelsea Czapkowski, who continues her playing career at Canisius College. It will help prepare Holder for her own college career starting in the fall at Misericordia University, where she is projected to play as a catcher. She batted .351 with seven doubles and 13 RBIs last season.
Along with Czapkowski, Borrelli has to replace graduated second baseman/outfielder Ashley Eckett, who is off to a college career playing at Arcadia University, and outfielder Taylor Martin, who is attending Ocean County Community College. Kayla Hayes moves from designated hitter to second base, where she played a bit last season while Eckett sat out with an injury.
Kayla Conners will be in the starting lineup at shortstop for the fourth year. Conners put up some big numbers at the plate last season, batting .463 with a .796 slugging percentage and 24 RBIs. She showed some power, hitting six doubles, three triples and two home runs. Conners will play at Wagner College next season.
Annabelle Santino has been a consistent leader at first base, while Madison Rodriguez and Amanda Harrison will play their third seasons in the outfield. All three are juniors
“Our defense is really good. Kayla Conners has shortstop locked down pretty well,” Conroy said. “Our hitting is really good. I feel we can put a lot of runs on the scoreboard this season. This team is like a family. Even the seniors who graduated last year stay in touch and are excited for us for this season and even come to practices.”
Borrelli said she is gearing her practices to helping her fielders improve on their range and for her players to make even better contact at the plate. With its ample experience, Jackson Liberty is expected to be a front-runner in B South.
“We need to focus on ourselves and just worry about playing hard every single day, both in practice and games,” Borrelli said. “There are going to be a lot of teams gunning for us after last season, and our division is exceptionally strong, but if we focus on the little things, the things we concentrate on each day at practice, we will see the payoff in the games. I love that everyone dives for the ball every day. It might seem like a small thing, but it shows me that they are always giving everything they have, and that is hard to beat.”
Sophomores Iliana Flores, Kaylee Book, Heather Tsapp and Drew Diodato will have contributing roles, while freshmen Emily Sanbeg and Lauren Cannestro bring new energy to the Lions’ lineup.