Two friends and former softball players who coached together last season are both now coaching at their respective alma maters, in the same town, less than a mile away from each other.
After one year of coaching at Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School, Jackie Zilnicki has slid over to take over the team at Riverhead High School, where she pitched, played shortstop and centerfield. Meanwhile, Zilnicki’s former assistant coach at Mercy, Rose Horton, takes over the Monarchs, the team she used to pitch for. Both coaches graduated from those schools in 2008.
As part of the coaching carousel, Horton will be assisted by former Riverhead coach Bob Fox. Zilnicki’s assistant coach, David McKillop, was Riverhead’s assistant coach when she played for the Blue Waves.
“Everything comes full circle,” said Zilnicki, who played in Little League with Horton. “It’s funny.”
Mercy (12-10 last season) is coming off a playoff season with a strong team. “I think it was one of the best seasons I’ve ever seen come out of Mercy, and I think this year we’re just going to continue to grow and succeed in our league,” said Horton.
A key for Mercy will be replacing two middle position players, catcher Ali Hulse and centerfielder Jamie Lessard, who both graduated. Olivia Valle moves from the outfield to catcher, the first time the junior has played that vital position. Another freshman, Gabby Jean, is being looked to as the new centerfielder.
“It’s a big deal to lose your catcher, but I do think that because we do have a very strong and solid team returning from last year that we should be able to overcome that,” said Horton.
Izzy Sorgi, a junior who pitches and plays shortstop, was an all-league selection last year.
“Isabella is kind of a special character,” Horton said. “She is such an outgoing person, but as a pitcher she is so reserved. … She is one of the most dedicated and positive girls on our team. She always stays confident, especially when she’s down in a count.”
Also back from last year’s starting lineup are junior third baseman Kate Wilkie, the team’s only senior, second baseman Margaret Terry, freshman pitcher/shortstop Sarah Penny and sophomore outfielder Jordyn Stromski.
Also offering varsity experience are outfielder Karen Nabrizny, infielder/catcher Lauren Hanna and utility player Chiara DePaola. Another utility player, Hannah Eschan, is new to the team.
What is it like for Horton coaching a team she used to play for?
“It’s super, super different,” she said. “I feel like the culture of the team is so different now. I feel it’s more competitive. I also feel like it’s more of a family than when I played for them. We created a warm and open team.”
Zilnicki said she is excited about returning to Riverhead High School and having the chance to “give back to the program and teaching the girls what I learned.”
Riverhead (6-14) has eight returning starters: senior pitcher Casey Plitt, junior third baseman/outfielder Allyson O’Kula, junior shortstop Kim Ligon, sophomore second baseman/outfielder Emily Bazarewski, freshman utility player Kacie Dilworth, sophomore catcher/outfielder Alexis Polak, junior catcher/outfielder Ashley Columbus and senior first baseman Kristen Brunner. The team has depth with utility player Ariana Breest, outfielder Kelly Falisi, her cousin, utility player Christy Falisi, first baseman/pitcher Brooke McKay and outfielder Grace Dillingham.
The first pitch hasn’t been thrown yet and Riverhead has already suffered a loss. Senior outfielder Taylor Marelli tore an ACL and is expected to be out for the season.
Zilnicki said, “If we continue to work hard every day and stay committed to the team, good things will happen this season.”
Horton and Zilnicki will share an interesting night when their teams play their senior game against each other on May 6 at Stotzky Memorial Park.
Shoreham-Wading River (11-9) has a new King, but he is from the same family as the previous King.
John King was in charge of the Wildcats last year, but has stepped down in order to accept a teaching job in East Hampton. His father, Bill, who had coached at Newfield for over 20 years, takes over. However, John King will serve the Wildcats as an assistant coach.
“We’re very similar in how we talk and how we coach, so I think it would be a good transition for the girls,” said John King.
Shoreham has only 11 players (one less than last year’s team), but what the Wildcats lack in quantity they hope to make up for in quality.
“The quality is definitely there,” John King said. “Every girl on the team is a very good softball player.”
Melissa Marchese, an all-county sophomore catcher, heads the cast. Last year she put up a .535 batting average with six home runs, 34 runs batted in and 12 doubles.
Shoreham also has a pair of all-division players in sophomore shortstop Joy Papagianopoulos (.375, two homers, 19 RBIs, nine doubles) and junior pitcher Victoria Coman. Coman, who had a 2.54 earned run average last season, has a 26-16 record over the past two years.
And there is more talent. Katlynn McGivney (.424, .531 on-base percentage, 28 runs scored) is an all-league second baseman. Like fellow sophomores Marchese and Papagianopoulos, McGivney is in her third year on the team. Third baseman Lindsey McKenna, leftfielder Bailey Rand, centerfielder Katherine Opiela and pitcher/infielder Hannah Longboat were also starters last year. They are all seniors except for Opiela, a junior.
Pitcher/first baseman Veronica Coman and infielder/outfielder Olivia Baudo saw some varsity action last year as well. Infielder/outfielder Michaela Hammer returns to softball after taking a year off from the sport.
“The goal this season is to get back into the playoffs after missing it last year,” John King said. “We expect to have a winning season and if the girls play to their potential, they can go a long way.”
Photo caption: Bishop McGann-Mercy pitcher/shortstop Izzy Sorgi was an all-league selection last year as a sophomore. (Credit: Garret Meade, file)