WEST WINDSOR – Even before the first shout of “play ball,” the Mercer County Community College (MCCC) softball team was looking at an uphill battle. Four key players from the team’s previous 24-11 season, for various reasons, did not return. This left a lot of holes to fill.
The 2016 squad responded with a school record 41-9 season, a national ranking, and a no. 1 seed in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region 19 Tournament.
“These young women stepped up when they were asked, did what needed to be done, and gave 100 percent on the field,” said Head Coach Ryan Zegarski. “The team chemistry was amazing. Everybody knew what they had to do to make this a winning team.”
The team’s 41 wins is an all-time best for a Mercer softball club, and won 18 out of 20 games going into the Region 19 playoffs, outscoring opponents 179-51 during the span. They entered the tournament as the no. 1 seed, and had climbed into the top 20 among all Division II softball teams in the nation.
But the scrappy 13-member squad ran out of steam in the double-elimination regional tournament, losing in the first and third rounds to rival Del Tech Owens.
“Del Tech had all the momentum in the world going into the tournament, and the rigors of a 50-game season, working with a short bench, finally caught up with us,” Zegarski said. “But you have to hand it to this team. They fought until the last pitch, the last out.”
The Vikings boasted one of the best pitching rotations in Region 19, anchored by Kelly Tohill, who earned post-season honors as the NJCAA Region 19 and Garden State Athletic Conference Player of the Year. Tohill finished the season with a 20-6 record, with 15 complete games and four shutouts and a 2.40 earned run average. She averaged more than eight strikeouts per game, and tallied 155 on the season. Nationally, Tohill ranked in the top 20 in wins, strikeouts, and strikeouts per game. At the plate, she hit .397.
Backing up Tohill on the mound was Autumn Sharkey, who posted a 10-1 record with a 1.89 ERA, and Kaitlin Stahlbrand, with a 11-2 record and a 2.51 ERA. Outfielder Casey Murphy led the offensive attack, with a .480 batting average and six home runs, 22 extra base hits, and 46 runs batted in. Murphy received the 2016 NJCAA Division II Marucci Elite Hitter Award, presented to the All-American nominee with the highest batting average from each district.
Other key contributors include Kristen Cheesman, with her .442 batting average and 28 RBI, and Rachel Levach and her team-leading 46 RBI and .341 batting average.
“Everyone contributed, up and down the lineup,” Zegarski said.
With a core that included four freshmen as key contributors, Zegarski is optimistic with what the 2017 season might hold. In addition to Stahlbrand (eight home runs), returns by Tori Carpenter (.410 batting average), Laura Gould (.404 batting average), and Lauren Bracco (.374 batting average) gives the Vikings an excellent foundation to make another playoff run.
“Our returning players will provide the leadership, and we look forward to a strong freshman class to fill some key roles,” Zegarski said. “We have some very talented sophomores moving on, but we are looking to reload quickly and continue the tradition of winning softball at Mercer.”
Zegarski was assisted by John Simone and Tom DeStefano.