Tom Smith photo
Tom Smith photo
Donovan Catholic’s softball program has established itself as one of the state’s best, but even the Griffins had a little uncertainty entering this season. 

They were coming off an NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title, but that was in 2019. After missing last year due to the Covid-19 shutdown, the Toms River school had nearly an entirely new cast.   

And yet, in a magical 48-hour span at Ivy Hill Park in Newark, the Griffins won the NJSIAA Non-Public A state title in miracle fashion over Immaculate Heart Academy (IHA) June 18; followed by a tense, 3-2 win over Clayton in the TOC semifinals and an 18-5 victory over Livingston in the TOC final that featured a historical third inning.  

All with just two players who played a part in the 2019 success.  

“We had this phenomenal group of players that won the Tournament Of Champions (TOC) in 2019 then when Covid hit, their season was taken away from them and their opportunity to come back to the big stage with the same group was lost,” coach Debbie Schwartz said. “The junior class that would be seniors last year could potentially have done it back-to-back. Obviously, that remained to be seen.  

“But for them to come in with mostly all new faces this year, it was amazing that right from the get-go they were determined to make their mark. They did it with hard work, dedication and a willingness to improve every day. Their success is a reflection of having a team that wants to do that, and is obviously a very talented team as well.” 

It was also a team that could win games every which way. After three straight pressure-packed state tournament wins, the Griffins just went out and had fun against Livingston.  

With the game scoreless in the bottom of the third, the Griffins exploded for a mind-blowing 17 run inning. It set a TOC record for runs in one inning, breaking the 2018 mark of nine by Steinert. It also surpassed the Griffins 2019 record of 10 runs in a game.  

As the inning unfolded, the participants could only shake their heads in amazement.  

“Wow!” coach Debbie Schwartz said. “To put up that kind of offensive power, not only did we put up runs but we ran the bases well. We had a really unbelievable inning in terms of bunting, stealing and hitting. We just put it all together.  

“We went through the lineup two-and-a-half times. I don’t think in all the years I’ve been a coach that I’ve had a team do that. Playing a team like Livingston, when you need to score runs, you score them

Senior Adriana Romano, who produced the season’s biggest hit two games earlier in the Non-Public A final, said the players were just as shocked. 

“That third inning we completely exploded and all of us were like ‘What is happening’” Romano said. “Everybody just started hitting. For the longest time there were no outs in the inning.” 

Winning pitcher Julia Apostolakos  had an eye-popping three hits and three RBI in the frame. Romano collected a double, two RBIs and three runs scored, Charlotte Dwyer added two hits and two RBIs, Alexis Letizia and Taryn Zylka both had two-run singles and Alice DeWaters delivered an RBI single.

The inning lasted so long that Apostolakos had to regain her groove after allowing five runs in the top of the fourth.

“Our big inning was 45 minutes long,” Schwartz said. “For her to come back on the mound after being up three times in the inning, she could possibly lose her focus. After that (fourth) inning, she went out to the bullpen, got herself sharp and closed it out.”

“From the beginning of that game we were all hyped, we were ready and we had the mentality of ‘Don’t settle,’” Romano said. “We had the mentality of ‘Play like it’s our last game, play every inning like it’s our last inning,’ That’s exactly what we did.”

When the game ended after five innings due to the 10-run mercy rule, Romano got what she was looking for after transferring from Barnegat two years ago.

“This was much more than I could have imagined,” she said. “This is my first and last season at Donovan and I wanted to make the most out of it. Obviously, we all dream of winning everything. I couldn’t ask for a better season. There is nothing I would change.”

The championship game came on the heels of a tight semifinal win over Group I Clayton, the second smallest school in the state in enrollment.

Donovan Catholic carried a 3-0 lead into the top of the fifth on RBIs by Dwyer, Emily Kurth and Letizia. Clayton cut it to 3-2 on Gianna Muhaw’s home run and Apostolakos came in for Romano in the sixth with runners on second and third and one out. The junior escaped further trouble as the Griffins held on for the win. Romano struck out 12, including the 500th of her career, while Apostolakos fanned four in just 1-2/3 innings. 

“(Muhaw) got a good piece of the ball and it made it a closer game,” Romano said. “But we pushed through and held them down. I knew a couple of the girls from that team. They played with me on the Jersey Gators in travel ball. We didn’t know what to expect and it was a really, really good game.  Very exciting.”

Not half as exciting as what happened two days earlier in the Non-Public A final. Playing Immaculate Heart, which defeated the Griffins in the 2016 and 2017 state finals and handed them their only loss this year, Donovan Catholic was down to its last strike while trailing by three runs.   

PHOTO GALLERY: Donovan Catholic Softball Championships

With the score 7-4 in the bottom of the seventh, the Griffins had two outs and no one on base before Ashley Federico and Alyssa Apruzzi drew walks. Romano had two strikes on her before electrifying the entire Donovan Catholic dugout and fan base by driving a pitch over the centerfield fence for a game-tying home run. It was her second homer of the game, both to dead center.

“I went up there thinking there’s two people on and they worked their butts off to get themselves on base,” Romano said. “Now they have passed the bat to me and I just need to keep it going. I didn’t want that to be the game where we don’t go any further. I calmed myself, I said ‘OK, be smart, be patient, pick a pitch that you like, and just hit it hard somewhere, make something happen.’ Obviously that’s exactly what happened in the best way possible.

“I thought it was gone. I felt it off the bat and I was like ‘Oh my Gosh, I can’t believe I did that.’”

Neither could Schwartz, who has won 656 career games but never one quite like that.

“There are very few times I show emotion on the field, but that was one of them,” the coach said. “I was jumping up and down. I couldn’t believe she did that. Did I have an inkling, did I think she could? Sure. But to do it is unbelievable. Once she hit that home run, I knew we survived.”

They still had to win the game, which they did in the 10th when Apruzzi scored on Kurth’s sacrifice fly. It was fitting the junior scored the game-winning run, as she was the lone regular on the 2019 champs (Federico was also a role player that year).

“Apruzzi came up really big in this tournament,” Schwartz said.

The IHA win put to rest the ghosts of the past, which made a lot of former players happy.

“I heard from some of the alumni, who gave us huge support, about what happened in the past,” said Romano, who also notched the win with five innings of stellar relief pitching. “And they beat us this year. So for the girls that were still playing and for the alumni and for coach, that was a huge thing.”

The Griffins finished 29-1 and are 59-3 over the past two seasons. Schwartz came to Donovan Catholic in 2014 after garnering 501 wins at Toms River East and has further enhanced her standing as one of the state’s top coaches.

She passed the credit on to her players.

“We’re so blessed to have so many talented kids come into our program and give us the opportunity to coach them to become a team,” Schwartz said. “That’s the hardest part, is becoming a team. What this team was missing was having pressure on the big stage and they got that against. St. Thomas Aquinas (in the South Jersey final), Clayton and IHA.

“We’ve been saying to the kids all year, ‘Just get the job done.’ Our mantra was ‘The best teams don’t always win, it’s the team that plays better.’ That’s what we were trying to tell our kids. Just play better.’”

The played better all right, which made them the best once again.