Considering where the girls were three years ago and what they accomplished this spring, there’s only one way to look at the past season for the Columbia softball team: as a resounding success.
For a third consecutive season under head coach Lou Cicenia, Columbia increased its wins. In his first year, they won four games, up from one win. In 2010, they won eight games and made the playoffs as an 11 seed. This past year they went 12-13 and made the postseason as a 10 seed.
“It was a great year, it went better than anyone else, except me, could’ve expected, especially with only four returning starters,” said Cicenia. “I think we did exceptionally well.”
The improvements on the field aren’t only evident in the win-loss record, but in the level and quality of play. There’s no question that the Cougar softball program is on the rise.
“The reason for our success this year is because of the chemistry we had,” Cicenia said. “The upper classmen stepped up, but so did the younger girls.”
This season they finished in third place in the Super Essex Conference Liberty Division with a 9-5 record, getting wins over Montclair, West Orange, Belleville and Caldwell. While the stellar play of Kyrsten Van Natta this season at shortstop and on the plate was what Cougar Nation has come to expect from the DI talent, it was the emergence of Emily Schnorr in the pitching circle and as a No. 3 and No. 4 hitter which really pushed Columbia to the next level.
“I think her performance as a sophomore, in a sense a rookie, I think she handled herself extremely well,” Cicenia said. “She did her job, she put the ball over the plate and let the defense make plays.”
Her presence in the circle allowed the Columbia offense to play within itself and not have to put up a big number on the scoreboard everyday. Schnorr was 12-11 with a 2.97 ERA, but in conference those numbers were 9-3 with a 2.69. Her bat lengthened Columbia’s lineup as well. And while last year the Cougars scored more runs as a team, it was the fact that they allowed fewer runs this season that really helped turn things around.
The two team MVPs were Van Natta and Schnorr, which bodes well for a young Cougar team, which will have both of its stars coming back. Van Natta assumed a leadership role this season, being the best player on the team, and despite a slight dip in the numbers, Cicenia thinks she became a better player. Van Natta finished with a .488 batting average, 40 hits, 16 RBI, four homers, four triples, seven doubles and 28 runs scored, leading the team in every category.
“She was a smarter player this year. It was more of a team concept this year,” Cicenia said. “I think having her as our vocal leader, not only our physical leader really helped the team. …She’s one of the few kids who plays for the love of the game.”
If there was any negative to the season it would be that their run in the state tournament and in the county tournament was short-lived, though if you look at seeding, it was to be expected. In the counties on the road against Montclair, a win would’ve been tough to come away with and the same can be said in the opening round of the state tournament against North Hunterdon, who was also seeded higher. While both games were winnable, they would’ve been upset wins had the cougars been able to pull it off.
Which sets up one of many challenges facing the Cougar girls, who lose Sam Guillen, Mariah Major and Tiffany Major to graduation. Can they breakthrough and finish above .500 next spring and can they get some home county and state playoff games to make the road a little smoother?
The loss of those three players cannot be overlooked, as they represent the beginning of Columbia’s turnaround over the last three seasons. Mariah Major was Columbia’s only full time player (aside from Van Natta) with an average over .300. Cicenia pointed to the loss of Guillen (second on the team in hits), who was a pitcher, outfielder and No. 4 hitter, as a real tough loss.
“Sam Guillen did a real great job as an outfielder this season,” Cicenia said. “She batted third or fourth for us and she started to bring in the runs or us at the end of the year. …She really did a great job of helping me rebuild this program.”
Cicenia did not want to get ahead of himself in setting goals for next season’s team. He said the focus is for the girls to find some summer teams to join and just play softball.
While Schnorr and Van Natta are important, the success or lack thereof for next year will depend heavily on the development of players like Lienne Harrington, Ryan Glynn, Terry Seelbach, Taryn Williams and Sarah Casiano, to name a few.
“Next year its one step at a time. I’d like to say that we’ll be over .500,” Cicenia said. “I think these kids will come back as one of the best teams in the county. …This year was probably the most positive year, not only in success but in the foundation that was laid. We’re heading in the direction that we want to be going. It has been a long time since Columbia was in the position that we’re in.”