The girls of the Millburn softball team will look to move the program forward another step this spring, as they try to qualify for the state playoffs for a fifth consecutive season and to make some noise within the division and county.
A year ago, the locals went 15-11 and claimed the No. 14 seed in the North II Group 3 state sectional playoffs, making an improbable run to the semifinal round. But after losing their top three hitters (Brigid Cunningham, Ali Graebner and Kaitlin Zampino), as well as their power pitcher (Zampino) and centerfielder (Rachel Bain) to graduation, things won’t be any easier this time around.
This year’s Miller girls will have some big shoes to fill, following what head coach John Childs dubbed as the best Millburn softball team in school history.
“Obviously we lost some very good players, but that’s a challenge every year. You have seniors and you have to replace them,” Childs said. “There were a lot of excellent plays by some of the younger players that helped us last year.”
The number one thing on the girl’s side this season are the seven returning seniors, most of whom saw significant playing time and contributed to last year’s success.
Co-captains Danielle Kirchner and Lydia Vollavanh headline this year’s returnees.
Kirchner has been Millburn’s back-up pitcher for the last two seasons, and has been patiently waiting for her moment to shine in the circle. Her time has come now, and while she may not be the power pitcher that Zampino was, Childs said that Kirchner can be every bit as effective.
“She rarely walks people, she’ll strike out four or five batters and she will make them put the ball in play,” Childs said of Kirchner. “I’m very confident in her. She’s ready to pitch almost every inning of every game for us. This is her chance, this is her time. …She has been relishing it and pitching very well.”
Vollavanh, a three-sport athlete, is entering her fourth season as a softball starter and will move from third base to shortstop. Childs said that she has the quickness and the arm to play the most difficult infield position in the game.
Other key returnees include Sam Abrams, who is one of the best defensive first basemen in the division, and Emily Beneroff, who is coming off a season at catcher where she set the school record for thrown out runners. Lauren Fiore, Rachel Hitzig, Courtney Lieberman and Jen Fried also saw a good amount of playing time a year ago.
Millburn will be more of a small-ball, aggressive on the basepaths type of team. You can expect to see more bunts, more steals, more hit and runs and, in general, a lot more offensive strategy than a year ago, without the power hitters in the middle of the lineup.
The premium will be even higher on defense, especially on the turf at Miller Field, which regularly turns routine doubles into inside-the-park home runs.
“I’m very optimistic. We may not be the offensive team that we were in the past, but we’re just as good defensively,” Childs said.
Within the Super Essex Conference Liberty Division, things will not be very easy. The locals finished fourth in the Liberty Division a year ago, and the top three teams (Montclair, West Orange, Belleville) are all back and just as strong. Teams like Columbia and Verona are also on the rise this season, so finishing in the top half of the division is not a given.
One thing that the Millers are focused on is making another trip to the postseason and extending their own school record with a fourth consecutive appearance. The Millers need only to be one of the top 16 teams out of 21 in the section to qualify.
“We just want to be in the top 16 teams,” Childs said. “If you’re in the top 16, you have a chance. You just have to get in. Once you’re in, anything can happen.”
Millburn opens up their season on Friday at home against Belleville.