New look Donovan Catholic Softball Team has more than 2019 title defense on their mind
The Donovan Catholic Softball team went from a team on the rise with six straight B-South Titles dating back to 2014 to a team on top with an NJSIAA State Tournament of Champions victory over Cedar Grove in 2019 along with Non-Public A-South championship, a 30-2 record and a ranking of 17th nationally.
The state championship in 2019 was the high water mark in years of continued success for the Griffins who have and continue to excel under Coach Debbie Schwartz, who credits senior led groups dating back to 2014 for helping propel the team to success in 2018 when they went 30-1 losing only to St. John Vianney in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public A Tournament Championship which ended up giving them fuel for 2019.
"We had failed on the biggest state the year before so we were driven to succeed in 2019 and you saw that in our play, it was reflective. We worked hard everyday. That team came to work everyday and what a great bunch of girls to have the privilege to coach," Schwartz tells Shore Sports Network.
Most of the Griffins on that championship team are no longer here, having graduated, some without an opportunity to play out a senior season in 2020 and compete for a 2nd straight title.
There are only 4 Griffins who remain from that 2019 championship team.
Alyssa Apruzzi, who is going into her junior season in 2021, who was a regular starter as a freshman playing SS and OF.
Ashley Federico, who is also going into her junior season, saw most of her playing time as a freshman coming off the bench as a pinch hitter or starting as the DH and playing some third base.
Alexis Letizia, who is going into her senior season, started several games in 2019 behind the plate.
Charlotte Dwyer, who is also going into her senior season, did not start in 2019 and played very little overall.
Letizia and Dwyer are among those recalling how they found success from the beginning to the end of the season.
"It was a great team. Everyone just knew how to work together, we would always pick each other up, there was never any bad energy and I think that's why we were able to go as far as we did because if someone made a mistake or something happened, we would always pick each other up and not let it bother us and move on," senior catcher Alexis Letizia tells Shore Sports Network. "From start to finish we had very great hitters and smart hitters who knew what to do in each situation."
Senior pitcher Charlotte Dwyer, who also plays first base, echoes a similar sentiment about the character of this team.
"The leadership that the seniors had that year...I want to be like them, they really knew how to motivate people and how to get people up and have everyone support each other," Dwyer tells Shore Sports Network.
From holding on hope for a chance to play a season in 2020 to watching it go away like a wave in the ocean...the Griffins underwent a change of identity, as seven seniors graduated and the teams chances to play for a 2nd straight title got put on hold.
"I was heartbroken for my players, it was just devastating to be honest with you, that's the best word I can use to describe what last year was like for us," Schwartz said.
It's not just not being able to play for a title the Griffins missed, but not being able to go out there and play with friends.
"Not having one more season with them was very hard and it was difficult to get through because I've personally been very close with all those girls and just grew up with them so not being able to play one more season with them was definitely hard," Letizia said.
Charlotte Dwyer is hoping to use her experience in the program to date to give back to the freshmen, sophomores and juniors.
"It's definitely awkward and weird not having your role models that came before you but hopefully I'll be for people below me," Dwyer said.
The loss of a 2020 campaign not only affected the players from the 2019 squad but also those joining the 2020 squad.
Senior Pitcher, Infielder, Outfielder Adriana Romano had transferred in from Barnegat High School for the 2019-20 school year in hopes of playing her junior year with the Griffins and said she was devastated when she learned there would be no season.
"I was really excited to get into Donovan, I was super hyped for the season and when we heard that Covid hit and we weren't having a season, I got really upset...I was really, really excited to be with the team to try and go for a 2nd title but unfortunately that didn't happen," Romano tells Shore Sports Network.
The seniors were denied one last chance at a title but the junior class also lost a year to show what they could do for potential college scouts as well as the up and coming freshman and sophomore players.
Everyone also lost an opportunity to learn and grow with a good group of talent in the program.
"The people I felt bad for are our freshmen, sophomores and juniors coming into the program to not have the experience of working with 7 unbelievably driven seniors that are now in the college programs in the country, so that hurt them in terms of experience," Schwartz said.
Virtual practices are not the same as in-person practices, that's a given.
Players not being able to play in games and compete, can't be made up, you can only move forward but it's in an athletes nature to try and make up for lost time due to injury or in this case, a pandemic cancelled season.
Some players are on multiple teams but while they may develop skills sets on each team, they learn different lessons on the school team.
"Many of them are very invested softball players that have attended camps or are playing on major travel programs/high-profile travel programs where they are getting a lot of attention so they don't have that pressure here (at DC)," Schwartz said. "Travel and high school softball are two different animals and what they get to learn at the high school level is how to excel and achieve as a team as oppose to as an individual."
Coach Schwartz and the Griffins navigated through some uncharted waters in 2020 and as the page turns into the 2021 season, with a much younger team, there's new goals and expectations.
"What we have is a clean slate because we didn't have a season last year and we have a lot of new faces in our program so it's kind of exciting as a coach to start a rebuilding season," Schwartz said. "We have some very, very talented players in our program and it's like a clean slate, it's a pretty exciting atmosphere."
The players worked on whatever they could from a distance in 2020 or by themselves at home to keep up a routine and will use what they learned as they look look ahead to what could be in 2021.
Alexis Letizia said once the 2020 season was cancelled she'd work out and go in her backyard and hit some balls off a tee.
With a new season underway, she's confident in the team's abilities to go far.
"It is a new team and we are younger but I think with time we can definitely do good this year," Letizia said.
As for defending a State Title, that's possible as well, but it'll feel different doing so two years later.
"It feels like it was so long ago, even though it was only two years ago but I think we could come back and win it all again," Letizia said.
Adriana Romano had a similar work ethic in 2020, working out at home or going to a field to practice with her Dad.
"I was always working because I wanted to stay fresh and be ready for this season so I was working very hard," Romano said.
The Griffins have their eyes set on a repeat and there's confidence with this group to be able to achieve great success.
"We're all very motivated and very excited for this season so I believe that we can get pretty far in our season and have a good shot at winning it again," Romano said.
It's a different looking Griffins team in 2021 having lost several key players and later seniors from that 2019 group, but this program in this year could very well exceed any outside expectations and give the Shore Conference a real test on the field this season.
The only expectation from Coach Schwartz is for her team to "play hard everyday and be competitive in every game."
Here are some of the Griffins to look out for this season with some changes possibly coming to the lineup:
Adriana Romano (SR)
Julia Apostolakos (SOPH) Charlotte Dwyer (SR) Anna Belle Graf (FROSH) Jenna Giattino (SOPH)