Cedar Creek softball takes next step in program's progression by winning sectional titleBy DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Heading into the second week of April, the Cedar Creek softball team was sporting an anything-but-robust 1-5 record. The program, in its seventh year, had produced some talented players, such as Cheyenne Meyer and Sam Errera, among others. And while the Pirates usually were good for a state playoff berth, rarely had they made it past the first round of sectionals.
There was nothing to indicate early on that the pattern the Pirates had displayed in years past would change. And after such an inauspicious start, Cedar Creek was going to have a tough time even competing in the Cape-Atlantic League’s National Conference, which featured teams such as Mainland Regional — a 2016 sectional finalist — Ocean City and Absegami. All three of those teams came into the 2017 season with a lot of talent and experienced players.
Cedar Creek lost early on to Mainland, 8-3, then dropped a 6-5 decision to a tough Millville team. After that, however, things changed, and the Pirates went on one of the most surprising runs in South Jersey softball — a run that culminated in the program’s first South Jersey championship.
What made the Pirates’ run even more impressive is that they did it with just two seniors, catcher MyKayla Bird and third baseman Sage Errera (Sam’s younger sister), as well as some relatively inexperienced pitchers, including junior Brianna Young and sophomore Ally Schlee. Young pitched a lot last year, but Schlee began to emerge as the ace this year, which actually helped Cedar Creek because it allowed Young to move to second base to help solidify the infield.
Junior shortstop Venizya Sanchez emerged as one of the top leadoff hitters in the CAL, surpassing the 100-hit mark for her career during the season, and Ashley Ancharski played a nice defensive first base. Outfielders Lauren Palomo, Gianni Luciano and Marlee Massaro formed a good defensive unit and were able to get on base in the bottom of the order to give RBI opportunities to players such as Errera, Young and Bird, and Jenna Price showed her versatility as a designated player.
“What I said to them (after the last game) was, out of all the teams I’ve coached — and I’ve had some talented teams — there’s no other team that I would want to be here in this situation with today than these girls. The way they go about practice, the way they came into the season, and the way they meshed in the middle of the season — we started out 1-5 and it was a rough beginning, but I just said we’re losing early but we need to win late, and we did. There’s no other team I’d rather be here with,” said head coach Shawn Cohen. “We only lose two seniors — now, it’s two key seniors, third base is the hot corner, and my catcher who has called pretty much every pitch since she’s been a freshman — they are going to be tough to replace, but I have a good, young core that is returning next year.”
Said Young, “It’s been a great season. For the seniors, being able to say they won a South Jersey title is great, and we can’t wait until next year. It feels good to get this far.”
Added Sanchez, “I think we’re going to be ready for next year because now we know what to expect. (Robbinsville) has been here a lot of times and this is our first time. We just talked about how this is the furthest we have ever been, and next year we expect to get even further.”
After that rough start, the Pirates — who finished 16-10 — won eight of their next nine games, with the only loss coming to eventual South Jersey Group 1 champion Buena Regional. They also scored a big 4-3 win over Mainland during that stretch, and beat Middle Township and Oakcrest twice. Consecutive losses to Absegami temporarily halted the hot streak, but after those two losses Cedar Creek went 7-3 to finish out the season.
The Pirates entered the South Jersey Group 2 tournament as the No. 4 seed and rolled past Medford Tech, 20-0, in the opening round. But, standing in their way on their side of the bracket was perennial power West Deptford and the No. 1 seed, Cinnaminson. It looked as though Cedar Creek again would have trouble getting past the quarterfinals. But the Pirates scored a 4-2 win over West Deptford, then went on the road and knocked out Cinnaminson, 1-0, to earn their first-ever berth in the championship game.
On the other side of the bracket, No. 11 Manchester knocked out three of the top six seeds to make its way to the title game, and held a 1-0 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh inning in the title game. But Cedar Creek never gave up, tying the game before Errera scored on a bouncer to shortstop by Bird that was mishandled. Pandemonium ensued, as Errera’s walk-off run secured the first sectional softball championship in school history.
“It’s just crazy. We’re a comeback team, so I expected this from my girls. We’re just so happy we came out on top. Oh, my God, I don’t even know what happened. I’m not the fastest runner, so all I was thinking the whole time was, ‘alright, Sage, this is the time to be fast, right now is the time.’ I was moving my legs as fast as I could, then I touched home and everyone started cheering. I didn’t even know what happened,” Errera said after the win over the Hawks. “It came down to who wanted it more, and we wanted it more.”
“I knew I just had to get it done. Everything was on my shoulders, everything we’ve been working all year for. The pressure was definitely on, and I felt like it was 10 times more. I knew I had to get it done,” Bird said. “When I hit it, I knew it wasn’t a for-sure play, so I knew I had to bust it through the bag at first and just hope (Sage) was busting her butt down the line to home. I didn’t even see her score until I turned around and saw all those people going crazy, and I was like, ‘we got it done.’”
Cohen said the key to the victory was the performance of his two seniors, particularly Bird, who helped Schlee handle the big-game pressure.
“(Manchester pitcher Alyssa Hampton) was having a great game. I think that’s where the leadership of MyKayla behind the plate comes through, just her leadership catching. She kind of walks (Ally) through the whole game. It’s going to be a big loss losing both these seniors, but MyKayla has helped that sophomore get through these tough games and settle her down. Even in the semifinals, (Ally) had a few strikeouts and MyKayla stood up and said, ‘OK, let’s not get too crazy now. Let’s keep working.’ To see her lead her along has been fun to watch. Alley pitches well, but I think having MyKayla out there to settle things down has been great for our team,” Cohen said.
Added Cohen after Cedar Creek’s season came to an end with a 10-0 loss to Robbinsville in the Group 2 semifinals, “My hope for next year is, the way MyKayla pulled my pitcher, Ally, along through some of these games — we upset Mainland at their place, going to Cinnaminson and winning there — even when Ally was getting strikeouts MyKayla would say, ‘OK, don’t get too excited, we still have more to do.’ I hope that Ally can help a new catcher come along. But we got here, and I brought my JV players and they see this atmosphere, I think now they know what to expect when they get here. We knew all the teams when you get to this point in the season are good, but now we know the intensity that needs to be brought here. So maybe next time we get here we won’t be so nervous and the butterflies in the beginning won’t be there.”
“It’s pretty cool to do this. We always relied on (girls like Sam and Cheyenne). This year, coming in, I knew we would be strong but I thought losing my sister would really hurt us. But, here we are winning the South Jersey championship. It feels great,” Errera said after the win over Manchester. “Most of our team is sophomores, but they are great sophomores. There’s only two seniors, me and MyKayla. It’s just great doing this with my best friends. I’ve been blessed.”
Cohen said that while he’s had more talented teams in past seasons, he certainly hasn’t had one with this much chemistry.
“I’ve had very talented teams. This team all meshed together as one unit. Even if somebody makes a mistake, everybody else rallies around them and there are no hard feelings. There is no division in the team. It’s amazing to watch them come together every day. I just love watching them play and come together as a team. Losing two seniors next year, we’ll be back in the hunt again. Losing our third baseman and catcher are tough spots to fill, but we’re in a good spot for years to come, especially with Ally pitching,” Cohen said. “Just watching them mesh together, they are competitive with each other but there is nobody out there making negative comments. They know at any moment it could be them who makes a mistake and they need their teammates there to back them up. That’s what this team has been about since Day One, supporting each other and pushing each other through, and that’s how we got here.”
Cohen couldn’t say enough about the leadership his two seniors brought to the table this year, and they helped the Cedar Creek softball program enjoy a championship run that will live on in players and coaches memories for years to come.
“Sage said it best during the first playoff game this year. She said, ‘I’m playing this game like it’s my last high school game ever.’ And that’s the way they have been playing every game since then,” Cohen said. “(During the playoffs), they’ve been leaving it all on the field, and it’s been amazing to watch.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays