West Windsor, N.J. - At the start of the 2019 season the Mercer County Community College (MCCC) softball team’s ceiling wasn’t clear. The Lady Vikings entered the year sporting 10 freshmen on a 14-player roster, and despite Head Coach Ryan Zegarski having high hopes for the year, he knew the season would be a challenge for his largely new crew.
“Mercer made it to the World Series in 2018 with a roster dominated by returning players,” Zegarski reflected at the start of the season. “Now we have more new faces, so we’ll really need to focus to return to that level.”
Initially, the team saw some adversity. The Lady Vikings started the season 6-8 and dropped games in a big way. During the Fast Pitch Dream softball tournament in Myrtle Beach in March, Mercer was twice held scoreless, as Zegarski tried to sort out the best strategy for the rest of the season.
But upon returning to New Jersey and National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region 19 play, Mercer rattled off five straight wins, which signaled a change of fate. The Lady Vikings combined for a 20-12 record to finish the year, including a 7-1 run to end the season.
“Something clicked with this team once we returned from South Carolina,” Zegarski said. “The entire roster gained some valuable experience playing on the road and used that momentum to propel us for the rest of the season.”
Though the Lady Vikings ultimately missed out on capturing another regional title, this year was a great primer for the 2020 season. “All of our freshman grew up a little bit,” Zegarski said, noting he saw leadership qualities develop in many of them.
Freshman pitcher Heather Clevenger quickly established herself as one of Mercer’s guiding lights. Clevenger started in 35 of her 37 appearances at the circle, and struck out 184 batters. Her 221 innings pitched set the record for the most by any Mercer softball player in a single season.
Those accomplishments added up to Clevenger earning a spot on the All-Region 19 Division II Softball First Team.
Also earning selections on the All-Region 19 teams were freshman infielder Paige Metz (First Team) and freshman outfielder Taylor Hawkes (Second Team). Both were Mercer softball’s resident iron women: Metz and Hawkes played in all 46 of the Lady Vikings’ games.
Gabby Estrada was also among Mercer’s top freshman contributors. Estrada led the squad in home runs (six) while batting home 42 RBI.
Off the field, MCCC had nine players earn All-Academic Team honors from either NJCAA Region 19 or the Garden State Athletic Conference (GSAC): Victoria Bowen, Clevenger, Natalie Ferrara, Metz, Devan Onorati, Caitlin Sharkey, Kelsie Whalen, Madalyn Wood and Julianna Nisen.
“This team grew and developed this year, especially in the last 30 games,” Zegarski said. “I’m very optimistic about our future after watching this roster make such great strides this season.”