Players take a victory lap. Rich Hundley photos
Players take a victory lap. Rich Hundley photos
When a team is the defending NJSIAA Tournament of Champions champ, one might think that winning the South Jersey Non-Public A sectional tournament for a second straight season might not be all that exciting.

“Oh my gosh, are you kidding!” exclaimed coach Debbie Schwartz after her Donovan Catholic softball team defeated St. Thomas Aquinas, 2-0, in the SJ final June 14. “It’s so exciting. Every step we take with this team is something new. This is a new season. This is their season; they’re earning it just as every other team has had to earn it.

“There are no gimmes, everybody is playing us hard. We’re taking that approach that on any given day we have to play the best softball we can possibly play.”

That was the perfect approach to take against the Trojans, who invaded the Donovan Catholic Athletic Complex in Toms River with 22-2 record. The Griffins (26-1) have blown out most of their opponents this year, but the Edison-based Trojans provided a needed test as Donovan prepares to face North Jersey champion Immaculate Heart in the Non-Public A finals.

“It was a good challenge for us,” Schwartz said. “We saw some things that we have to work on and we’ll go to work now and hopefully do a little better for the next round.”

The Blue Eagles (26-4) are the lone team to have defeated Donovan Catholic this year, taking a 4-2 win on May 15. This will be the third time the teams meet for a state crown since Schwartz took over in 2016, with Immaculate Heart winning in 2016 and 2017.

The Griffins were unsure who they were playing following their win over St. Thomas Aquinas, but were ready for anybody after winning their fourth sectional title in five seasons.

“It’s crazy,” said third baseman Julia Apostolakos, who gave Donovan Catholic all it needed with a two-run homer two batters into the game. “We’re gonna train hard, go out and play and have fun in the next game.”

“This is awesome, it just feels so good for all of us,” added centerfielder Jenna Giattino. “We feel like we’re going all the way.”   

For pitcher Adriana Romano, who fired a one-hitter with 10 strikeouts, this was what she envisioned after transferring from Barnegat two years ago. When Covid-19 shut down spring sports last year, this became her only shot to enjoy some championships.

Donovan Catholic got its first title by winning the Shore Conference Tournament, although Apostolakos pitched the final against Colts Neck as the two hurlers have alternated throughout the year.

“It’s so great, honestly,” Romano said. “This is the best thing I could have hoped for. This is a great team, a great organization. Our team is so close, we’re so bonded. I love this.”

She also loved being given an early lead thanks to some déjà vu.

In the semifinals against St. John Vianney, Holmdel, with Giattino on first and no one out in the first inning, Apostolakos socked a two-run homer.

Against the Trojans, Giattino led off the first with a walk and Apostolakos blasted another one.

“We just want to score first, attack first,” the sophomore slugger said of her ninth dinger this season. “In a big game like this you want to attack and get them up on the board. It definitely sets the tone for the game.”

“That was great,” Giattino said. “That just set the tone for the whole game for us to just carry through and put us on top and it kept us up.”

“That was some timely hitting there,” Schwartz said. “When we get that early lead it just settles our team down. Catching that early lead puts us at ease, helps us relax and play good softball.”

No one appreciated it more than girl in the circle.

“That kind of took the weight off my chest,” Apostolakos said. “I was like ‘All right, I got this.’”

She sure did have it, but needed some help from Giattino in the sixth.

After Kaitlyn O’Neill reached on an error to start the inning, Paige Tidaback slammed one over Giattino’s head in center for St. Thomas’ lone hit. The sophomore tracked down the ball, whirled and threw a strike to Apostolakos at third, who made the tag on O’Neill.

Suddenly, a second-and-third; no-out situation became a runner on second with one out and Romano saw her way through the inning.

“That was huge,” the pitcher said. “I was screaming. I was so excited. She picked it up, she knew exactly what she was doing and to get that out at third was so big. Sooo big. I’m so proud of her.”

“Unbelievable,” Schwartz said. “She’s worked very hard at becoming a better outfielder and it showed today. That throw was amazing.”

Giattino knew her plan the whole time she was chasing the ball.

“I just kind of ran for it to pick it up and said ‘I gotta hit third,’” she said. “That’s all I was thinking. It felt like a good throw when I threw it.”

Romano left nothing to chance in the seventh as she struck out the side to reach double figures in Ks for the 12th time this season.

“You just want to go out there and get it done,” the hurler said. “Go out and throw strikes and power through it.”

It was an impressive effort for a girl who was pitching in the first championship game of her high school career. 

“I just made sure I was well rested, had a good breakfast,” she said of her day. “I tried to make sure I had everything going for me, getting prepared mentally, which is a huge thing. (Thinking) ‘All right, big game today, come in ready.’ You know you gotta show up, so do it.”

She did it all right. The Trojans Mary-Kate Murray had 12 home runs and Romano struck her out twice.

“I just thought, ‘Spin the ball, throw hard and keep it out of the zone,’” Romano said. “Get her working in and out, and try to keep her limited as much as possible.”

It was a masterful effort that drew praise from Schwartz.

“Just a huge performance,” the coach said. “She really came through in a pressure situation against some really good batters.”

It’s now on to the finals, where Donovan Catholic will try to maintain its consistency.

“We have a couple of kids that were in the program two years ago that had that experience,” Schwartz said. “It’s just a matter of going in and playing our best softball. That’s our goal.”