CAMDEN, N.J. (March 8, 2012) – When the 2011 softball season ended, Rutgers University-Camden Head Coach Brian Wolverton knew the areas he had to address if his team hoped to make a run to the New Jersey Athletic Conference playoffs in 2012.
Wolverton and Assistant Coach Mike Medrick, who are heading into their fifth season together at the helm of the Scarlet Raptors, had just watched their team compile a 16-18 record despite having by far the worst team batting average in the NJAC at .234. The Raptors’ average was 49 points lower than the ninth-best average of New Jersey City University and the Scarlet Raptors scored 58 fewer runs than the next-best team.
Despite their lack of offense, the Raptors came within a whisker of qualifying for the sixth
and final berth in the NJAC playoffs. Only a doubleheader loss to Kean University on the last day of the season prevented the Raptors from reaching the playoffs. They finished one game behind the sixth-place Cougars, who leapfrogged Rutgers-Camden with their doubleheader sweep.
The fact that the Raptors came that close is due in large part to the right arm of pitcher Amanda Cassella (Atco, NJ/Hammonton), who hurled 170 of the team’s 225 innings in 2011. Cassella returns for her senior season after going 15-12 with a 3.01 ERA and 21 complete games in her 27 starts.
This time around, Cassella has help, both on the mound and at the plate.
“That was the big thing as we were out recruiting,” said Wolverton about improving the team’s offense and pitching depth. “It was obvious we needed to score more runs. The other concern, coming out of last year was the pitching.”
Wolverton shouldn’t have to worry in either area this season. Cassella seems primed for a big senior year, and the addition of two junior college transfers suddenly has the Raptors boasting a deep staff. Junior Brittany Sullivan (West Deptford, NJ/Gloucester Catholic) went 12-1 with a 2.19 ERA last season while helping Gloucester County College capture the NJCAA Division III national championship. Another junior righty,Ashleigh Johnson (Bordentown, NJ/Bordentown Regional)posted a 25-9 record and sub-2.00 ERA’s in her two seasons at Burlington County College. Johnson spent a semester at Kean last fall before deciding to attend Rutgers-Camden.
“Amanda came out a little late this spring, but she’s in great shape and looks fantastic,” Wolverton said. “We’re expecting big things from her. Brittany pitched at GCC and, although she wasn’t their No. 1, they won the World Series. Ashleigh was at BCC and at Kean – we added her to our staff and it took away from their staff.
“It’s a competition now. We’ll use our Florida trip to evaluate it. Until May it doesn’t really matter who is No. 1 anyway because we play doubleheaders every day.”
The Scarlet Raptors’ season opens Sunday, with their first of 12 contests at the Rebel Spring Games in Kissimmee, Florida. Rutgers-Camden plays Utica College (1 p.m.) and Wheaton (MA) College (5 p.m.) on opening day. The Raptors won’t play a home doubleheader until April 3, when they host The College of New Jersey in a conference twinbill.
The Scarlet Raptors return 10 letterwinners from their 2011 team, with the only major loss being the graduation of second baseman Brooke Keenan. Keenan finished the season with a team-leading .324 batting average, one of only two Raptors to hit over .300. The other was catcher Erika Drayton (Blackwood, NJ/Triton Regional), who returns for her fourth season after batting a career-high .320. Drayton will team with junior shortstop Kaitlyn Gaskill (Pennsville, NJ/Pennsville Memorial) and junior first baseman Christina Tamburrino (Williamstown, NJ/Williamstown) as the Raptors’ tri-captains. It is the second straight season Drayton has been one of the team captains.
“She’s the heart and soul of the team,” Wolverton said of his senior backstop, who enters the season only 12 hits shy of the 100 plateau for her career.
Tamburrino, meanwhile, is the kind of player every coach wants on their team. She has played catcher, shortstop and outfield at Rutgers-Camden and now is making the transition to first base.
“She is selfless,” Wolverton said. “People talk about a team player. She has changed positions four times and never said a word other than wanting to get better at the position she’s at.”
Tamburrino’s team-first attitude extends to her offensive style of play. Although her batting average dropped from .256 to .209 last season, she set a single-season program record by reaching base 11 times as a hit batsman. The 11 HBP also allowed Tamburrino to set the program’s career record as she hiked her total to 18 HBP in only two seasons.
Gaskill, meanwhile, made the transition from first base to shortstop last season. Despite little protection in the lineup, she finished third on the team in hitting (.259) and led the club with six home runs, all while adjusting to the demanding shortstop position.
“She’s much more comfortable at shortstop than she has been, and having a couple of other bats in the lineup, teams won’t be able to pitch around her,” Wolverton said.
One of the key new faces for the Scarlet Raptors will be junior second baseman Courtney Ray (Gloucester City, NJ/Miami Palmetto, FL). Ray, who played one season apiece at Northwest Florida State College and Burlington County College, hit .347 last season for the Barons. More importantly, she is a defensive whiz at the keystone sack.
“She is the best second baseman I’ve ever seen play,” Wolverton said. “She’s legit. We’re expecting a really big year from her.”
The job at third base will be a battle between junior Danielle Meng (Pennsauken, NJ/Pennsauken) and sophomore Gabby Colon (Buena, NJ/Buena Regional), “whoever does a better job defensively,” according to Wolverton. Last year Meng hit .161 and Colon hit .133, but both provided some clutch offensive moments. Colon tied Cassella for second on the team with three home runs. Meng had six doubles (tied for third on the team) and also reached base five times as a hit batsman.
Colon also may see some time as a backup catcher.
In addition to Ray, Wolverton expects to find a significant offensive upgrade from newcomers Tabby Dick (Gloucester City, NJ/Gloucester City) and Jackie Leafey (Gloucester City, NJ/Gloucester City). The two juniors are among a four-player mix in the Scarlet Raptors’ outfield, along with seniors Lauren Hatzelhoffer (Brick, NJ/Brick Memorial) andVicki D’Anduono (Lanoka Harbor, NJ/Lacey Township).
Along with Ray, Dick also played one season apiece at Northwest Florida State and BCC. She hit .390 last season for the Barons and earned NJCAA Div. II Second Team Region 19 honors. Leafey, meanwhile, was a two-year star at BCC, hitting .305 and .397 as a freshman and sophomore, respectively.
Despite slumping to .198 last season, which dropped her career average from .277 to .235, Hatzelhoffer enters her senior season with the Raptors as one of the program’s top base stealers. She led the team with 19 steals last season and is eighth on the career list with 26 steals (in 30 attempts). She also is a stellar defensive centerfielder.
D’Anduono, meanwhile, is coming off a .244 season after hitting .364 in 2010. She still finished fourth on the team with a .364 on-base percentage, aided by seven HBP which hiked her career total to 11 HBP, fifth on the all-time list. She enters the season with a .355 career on-base percentage, the 14th-highest mark in program history for all players with 200 or more at bats.
“They are four kids who are going to play,” Wolverton said. “Where they play, we’ll try to figure out. We’re looking to see who gives us the best offensively. Defensively it’s pretty close, although Lauren has a bit more range.”
Another potential big bat, who will help spell Drayton behind the plate, is junior transferCaitlyn Pipolo (Woodbury, NJ/Woodbury), who has hit wherever she has been. The last two seasons, that has been at Gloucester County College, where she was an All-American during the Roadrunners’ national championship season in 2011.
Also returning for the Raptors will be sophomore pitcher Mackenzie Walker (Ewing, NJ/Ewing)and sophomore third baseman/shortstop Kelly Harper (Delanco, NJ/Riverside). Walker went 1-4 in 24.2 innings as a freshman, while Harper was used in several pinch-running roles during her first collegiate softball season.
“The overall talent level is much higher this year,” Wolverton said. “We have 16 kids who can all play softball. It’s just a matter of it coming together.”
Another major upgrade on the 2012 Scarlet Raptors lies in the coaching staff. Returning as an assistant coach is Autumn Ciarrocchi, who also served as an assistant in 2008. Under her maiden name, Autumn Millett, she set career offensive records in practically every category at Rutgers-Camden during her stellar career. A member of the Raptors’ 2006 national championship team, she capped her career as a First Team All-American in 2007. Among her haul of career records, she is the program’s all-time leader in games (187), hits (194), at bats (549), home runs (36), RBIs (146), runs (151), total bases (345) and slugging percentage (.628).
“Autumn is far enough removed from the playing field that everyone has that respect for her and her accomplishments, but she’s also young enough that she can relate to everyone,” Wolverton said.
With upgrades at so many positions, it’s no wonder that the Scarlet Raptors are anxious for the season to begin.
“This is a fun group,” Wolverton said. “We’re looking forward to the year.”