By Rich Fisher | Correspondent
In an eye-popping display of offensive power, the Donovan Catholic softball team collected 12 hits and three home runs in taking a 13-4 win over St. John Vianney in the Shore Conference Tournament championship game June 4 at County Basie Field in Red Bank.
What a difference scant days make.
On May 31, SJV’s Julia Parker held the Griffins to three hits in a 2-0 win in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public A championship game. This time around, Parker lasted just 2/3rds of an inning after allowing seven runs.
Photo Gallery: Donovan Catholic Shore Conference Tournament Win
“It was a different team,” Donovan Catholic coach Debbie Schwartz said. “We were very prepared.”
Donovan Catholic led 2-0 after two batters as Alexa Pagano singled and Jayda Kearney homered. That lit the fuse to an unforeseeable first-inning uprising against a hurler who pitched outstanding against Mount St. Dominic in the state final Saturday and against Donovan Catholic in the sectional final.
“We absolutely adjusted,” Schwartz said. “We were prepared for that inside pitch and when we took that away from her, we had her. We also talked about what we didn’t do and what we needed to do today. Obviously you could see the emotion and the difference.”
The veteran coach has won more than 600 games and four SCT titles – three with Toms River East – so she has seen a lot and is not easily flummoxed. But the Griffins first-inning explosion was so shocking, it had the fifth-year Donovan Catholic coach talking in circles.
“To bat through the lineup was huge for us,” Schwartz said. “It was more than I expected, but I expected that.”
“It didn’t matter who was playing us tonight, we were on fire and we showed Donovan Catholic softball,” she said.
What made it special, is that they got a rematch with Vianney, which spoiled Donovan Catholic’s chance for a state title after the Griffins reached the state finals the previous two years.
“To get a second shot, I think it felt great,” Pagano said. “Not every team gets to do that. Our coaches played in college and they said most seniors don’t get a second shot, they end with a loss. We, as seniors, got to end with a win, so that’s just incredible for us.”
They won it with everyone contributing Pagano, Kathryn Gaskins (3 runs, 3 RBI) and Kati Vazquez (1 run, 2 RBI) each had two hits. Kearney had a hit, two runs, two RBI; Mikayla LaPlaca had a hit, RBI and two runs; Lindsay Nelson had a hit, RBI and run scored; and Amanda MacBurnie had a hit, run and three RBI.
It was a matter of everything clicking at once.
“We’re all outstanding individual players but until we come as a team, we’re not gonna put up scores like that,” Pagano said. “Against good teams like St. John Vianney, we needed to find each other and rely on each other. All the runs, all those home runs, that’s doing it for your team. That’s not individual anymore.”
The victory allowed Donovan Catholic to finish 30-1 and end their season on a high note. The Lancers (27-1) will prepare for their June 6 Tournament of Champions semifinal game against the winner of Steinert-Roselle Park. (Update: St. John Vianney lost in the Tournament of Champions.)
The Griffins will be rooting for them.
“Of course,” said MacBurnie, a senior designated player. “They’re a great team. They’re a fun team to go against because they bring it out on the field just like we do.”
The battles have been epic. SJV is 55-2 over the past two years, with both losses coming to Donovan Catholic.
“We played them the last three years, and they’re probably one of our best games,” Pagano said. “They’re a great program, they’re like what Donovan is becoming. I think that’s what we wanted to establish, that Donovan can be up there with St. John Vianney and be a great program.”
Donovan Catholic proved how great in the first inning. After Kearney’s homer, three walks led to a two-run single by Vazquez, followed by a three-run homer from MacBurnie.
“I wanted to have the score way higher; in the first inning I was all pumped up,” MacBurnie said. “The home run was amazing, I just wanted to keep it going. We knew we had to come up strong and prove a point in the beginning. We were planning on a strong start and that’s what we did.”
And what was Vazquez thinking as she trotted ahead of her teammate?
“I’m thinking I need to give her a big hug at home plate,” she said.
SJV tried to chip away against junior hurler Nelson, getting an RBI double from Gillian Zach and solo homers from Lindsey Baron and Gabby Polera. But Nelson never let the Lancers get closer than 7-2 and 8-3, finishing with a five-hitter
“Lindsey was phenomenal,” Vazquez said. “She wanted it more than anyone. We had her back and did everything we could for her and she pitched amazing.”
The Griffins helped by tacking on runs with Nelson’s RBI single in the fourth and Gaskins three-run homer in the sixth.
All that remained was the celebration, especially for those who finished their careers in style – seniors Pagano, MacBurnie, Vazquez and Grace Leone.
“We grew up playing together, our first games playing were together,” MacBurnie said, referring to Pagano standing beside her. “It’s crazy this is our last one so this is extra special for both of us.”
“The Donovan program completely changed my softball experience, I think for both of us,” Pagano said. “We started playing the first time at 10 years old. It’s crazy to think we’re older, but everything we got doesn’t come from anything but hard work. We have 11 Division One players, you don’t get that given to you. We all knew each other from Intensity travel program. Since that program, we went to school together and became best friends so I think we work really hard even with what’s going on outside of softball.”
Vazquez transferred from Freehold Township after her freshman year and feels she couldn’t have made a better move.
“These were the best years of my entire life,” she said. “We made a statement, we created a name for ourselves and we are known for what we can do.”
MacBurnie is hoping even better days lie ahead, but will cherish what she already has.
“These past four years are crazy, if college could top it I can’t wait,” she said. “These past four years have been the time of my life on the field. I know we’re all gonna be in touch and talk about this. We’ve been waiting for this game since we were younger. This just ended great for us.”
In the past four years, the senior quartet has helped Donovan Catholic to a 102-15 record, four Shore Conference B South titles, two South Jersey crowns and an SCT championship.
They will move on to new adventures next year as Pagano heads to Florida International, MacBurnie to the University of Maine and Vazquez to Radford. But their high school days won’t soon be forgotten.
“It’s very tough [not to win a state title], but it really is good to have this as our last game as seniors,” Vazquez said. “We put everything together on the field and we won a title.”
It is thought to be the school’s first SCT title since the 1980s when it was Monsignor Donovan, as Schwartz and her players have breathed new life into the Griffins.
“The foundation that the seniors have built in this program, to carry on this tradition through our underclassmen is huge,” Schwartz said. “This was a huge victory for us today. What a great way for all four of them to go out. I’m so proud of all these seniors and proud to have coached all of them.”