If any coach knows how to keep a team hungry after enjoying massive success, it’s Debbie Schwartz.

She has had a lot of experience with it.

Since coming to Toms River’s Donovan Catholic in 2014, Schwartz’s teams have gone 194-23 (counting this season) with five NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public A championships, two Non-Public A state titles, two Tournament of Champions crowns and two Shore Conference Tournament championships.

Coming off a 29-1 campaign in which the Griffins won all three trophies, there is no sign of complacency as they started the season 15-0 for just the third time under Schwartz. Donovan Catholic, which carried a 33-game winning streak into its Apr. 28 game at Lacey, has outscored opponents 172-11.

The biggest challenge for New Jersey’s No. 1 ranked team, came in a 5-1 win over No. 4 ranked Bordentown in the Apr. 24 Hammonton Invitational Tournament

“They gave us a good test,” Schwartz said. “And we played Livingston (last year’s other TOC finalist) and it was 1-1 when the rains came, so we’ll see if we can make that one up.”

The bottom line is, there is no complacency in the program despite Donovan Catholic having won the last two Tournament of Champions crowns. Schwartz feels it’s a mindset embedded in the program. The coach and her long-time assistant, Dawn Dziedzic, have a way of keeping the team grounded, but Schwartz passes the credit along to her players.  

“They understand that every day’s a new game,” she said. “We go to work every day. It’s one game at a time. We don’t rest on any accolades; we continuously build to become better every day… Our approach isn’t to win championships; it’s just to compete in every game and play your best and get better.”

In other words, Donovan Catholic competes against itself to improve performance, which pays off when competing against opponents.  

But as ferocious as the Griffins are on the field, they are just as gentle off it.

“They’re faith-driven,” Schwartz said. “They all have good character, they’re all kind. They’re all humble in their approach. I’m very blessed to be coaching this group of kids.”

Having a pitcher like Julia Apostolakos is a blessing in itself, as the junior has been phenomenal this season. In forging a 13-0 record with 11 shutouts, she has allowed just 18 hits, eight walks, five hit-batsmen and three runs while striking out 153 in 69 innings (2.2 per inning). On Apr. 27, she threw her fifth no-hitter of the season in a 9-0 win over Barnegat.  

And she is just as dangerous at the plate. Apostolakos not only leads the state in strikeouts, but she also leads all New Jersey players in hits (34) and RBI (35).

Schwartz said there are several reasons why Apostolakos has improved her pitching from last year, despite going 17-0 with 110 strikeouts in 85.1 innings.

“Julia came into the season extraordinarily prepared,” the coach said. “She’s on the strength team at Donovan Catholic, she came in really, really strong and in awesome shape. She grew a year, so her leadership skills and her maturity are there in a whole different way. So, her approach to the game has changed tremendously and it’s definitely reflecting in her overall game.”

Not to mention, her actual pitching mechanics have improved.  

“Her ability to move the ball now is much better,” Schwartz continued. “She’s more of a pitcher than a thrower. That’s where you see the uptick in her strikeouts. Moving the ball and with a pace. The combination of those three things together have made her something very, very special.”

And in keeping with the team concept, Julia is hardly satisfied with where she is when it comes to her arsenal of pitches.

“She’s trying to master as many as she can,” Schwartz said. “She can throw all pitches; she’s better at certain types of movements than others. She’s trying to progress as we go through the season, trying to become better every day. She’s very humble in her approach to the game and really, really, really focused.”

Julia is the third of four Apostolakos sisters to play for Schwartz. She had oldest sister Kylie for a year while coaching at Toms River East; Julia’s big sister Madison and little sister Gianna are on the Griffins this year.

“Our coaching staff has been very familiar with the Apostolakos family for many years,” Schwartz said. “I would imagine when Julia came in last year, she was just very comfortable starting the season. We’ve known Julia and Maddy and Gianna since they were little kids. It’s just been a softball world with them.”

Aside from her pitching, Julia is the team’s top hitter with an eye-popping .723 average. She has seven doubles, a triple, four homers and 35 RBI. Maddie, a senior, is batting .346 while Gianna waits her turn to break into a well-stocked lineup.

“I just think they’re all hard-working players, Schwartz said. “They all worked hard at their game and it’s showing. Gianna’s doing some base running for us right now, but she has great potential as an all-around player and Maddy has come into her own”

But the Griffins are hardly a one-family production, as witnessed by a team batting average of .450.

Senior Alyssa Apruzzi, who plans to serve her country by joining the U.S. Air Force after graduation, has a batting average higher than the wild blue yonder as she is hitting .523 with three doubles, a triple and 14 RBI.

Donovan Catholic also has power in the lineup. Senior Ashley Federico is hitting .425 with four doubles, nine home runs and 20 RBI, while junior Jenna Giattino is at .512 with six home runs, 20 RBI, 22 stolen bases and 19 runs scored.

In the two games Apostolakos did not start, sophomore Annabelle Graf picked up the wins and has allowed just two earned runs in 15 innings.

Schwartz feels seniors Taryn Zylka, Toni Marchlewski, Federico, Apuzzi, the two older Apostolakos sisters and Giattino have provided the leadership on a veteran team that has also filtered in three new starters.

“Our senior and junior class, those seven girls, have done a really good job of keeping everybody focused and on track,” the coach said. “They have really been our catalysts.”

But they have hardly been the only contributors. Sophomore Emily Kurth, who had a stellar freshman year, has come back just as good and is hitting .421 with four doubles, three homers, 10 RBI and 21 runs scored.

“She’s making major contributions this year,” Schwartz said.

And in the “rich get richer” department, three freshmen are also contributing. Christina Ginex is batting .500 with four doubles, a homer and 12 RBI, Olivia Kurth is hitting .463 with 14 RBI, and Megan Miller has played solidly defensively while being hit for by Zilka.

“These girls came in and were immediately welcomed,” Schwartz said. “Ginex and Kurtz are my middle infielders and are doing an awesome job at that, and Megan Miller is also contributing. Those three are doing great and we have other freshmen who are so talented that will start to see time. We’re trying to work them in.”

As the Griffins focus on their day-to-day improvement, several have also made long-range plans.

Marchlewski will attend the University of North Carolina-Asheville next year but is unsure if she will play softball. Maddie Apostolakos will play at Susquehanna (PA) and Zylka will play for Quinnipiac (Hamden, CT). Julia Apostolakos has verbally committed to play for the University of South Florida in Tampa. Federico and Gianttino are still deciding on where to play.

But for now, they are all under the Donovan Catholic umbrella, and Schwartz could not be happier.

“I’m just blessed,” she said, “to be part of this fine group of young women.”