by Andrew Garda
Montclair Kimberley Academy head softball coach Jessica Sarfati only lost two players to graduation after last season, but despite having a lot of returning players, she and her Cougars are still changing some things up.
Sarfati is excited for her team and proud that as a unit, they are never shy about learning new positions to help the squad.
“I have lots of girls willing to learn new positions and play anywhere,” she said. “It’s nice.”
It’s impressive when a team heavily weighted towards juniors shows it’s able to adapt games to what the coach needs. Often once a team has mostly juniors, everyone is set at their position and in their ways.
Not the Cougars, who pride themselves on being ready for anything.
A great example of that is shortstop Emily Talkow.
Already a great leadoff hitter, Talkow could very well have showed up to camp ready to go and merely contributed from the right side of the plate, her natural hitting side.
Instead, she arrived learning an entirely different way of hitting, becoming a “slapper” — a batter who hits from the left side, and gets a running start on the pitch, so that when she makes contact she’s already leaving the batter’s box. It gives a batter a lead down the first base line, and if you’re good, you can adjust the way you hit so that when the infield is pulled in expecting a short hit, you can pop it over their heads to where they aren’t. And if you’re great at it, put the ball in play behind the third base or shortstop, as far away from first as possible..
If done right, it’s very effective. It’s also incredibly tough to do, and not something most right-handed batters attempt.
That clearly didn’t daunt Talkow’s enthusiasm any. Sarfati said that being a switch hitter helps the team in a big way.
“She’s learning, but she’s already a very strong bunter and fast,” Sarfati said. “She’ll able to bat from both sides.”
It will be very hard for teams to defend her, making Talkow a dangerous leadoff batter.
While some players will be challenging themselves like Talkow, others will be stepping back into roles they already play well.
“We’ll have Jamie Fuchs, who will be one of the leaders in the outfield, as well as Annie Turvey, who will also see time at first base,” Sarfati said. “Jillian Fishback will see time at first and in the outfield and Ava Capatelli will return at second base.”
There are also captains Mira Rajani and Jena DeSalvo. Rajani will be in the outfield, while DeSalvo will start at third base.
“I’m really proud of them,” Sarfati said. “They’ve come a long way. They’re always giving the girls encouragement and trying to help the team out on and off the field.”
The biggest returning weapons will be pitcher Geena Pacifico and catcher Amanda Mack.
Sarfati paired the two last season, and the chemistry between them was obvious from the first pitch. Last season showed that they had good communication and trust, and with a season under their belt, the team feels as though the best is yet to come.
“Geena and Amanda are really good friends and have always had a really dynamic relationship,” said Sarfati. “I think that Amanda does a great job of coaching Geena through the really tough spots and Geena has really worked hard in the offseason to really perfect her pitches and also gain more pitches. So, I have confidence they’re on the same page and they know what they have to do.”
Sarfati should know, as she was a catcher during her softball career. That’s been something she could use to help the already productive Mack take her game to the next level.
“I’ve worked a lot with her as a catcher, like how you can read the umpire and how you can position yourself better to help your pitcher along,” Sarfati explained.
Communication is key, though, and Sarfati feels these two have that down pat.
“They both come in every inning and discuss what’s working — because we like to focus on the positive — and ask “what can we do better?”
If Pacifico and Mack can continue to improve like they did last season, the Cougars have a lot to look forward to.
The Cougars open at home against Caldwell on April 1, then head to Newark Academy on April 3. They’ll face Livingston at home on April 5, and Newark East Side on the road April 6 before meeting Montclair High School away on April 8.