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Softball Preview: Wildcats have admirable mix of youth, talent



John King makes the move from coaching Shoreham-Wading River’s junior varsity softball team to its varsity team, and yet he is still coaching quite a young team. A young team that can hit and has the ability to do some good things.

King takes over a playoff team that went 15-7 last year. Although Shoreham lost four starters from that team, it still has seven returning players, including its all-league sophomore pitcher, Victoria Coman (15-7, 3.41 earned run average, 60 strikeouts).

“She has good accuracy with her pitches and has a variety of pitches,” said King.

And Coman should have something else: run support.

The Wildcats are comfortable with the bat in their hands. Three freshmen — second baseman Katlynn McGivney (.373), third baseman Joy Papagianopoulos (.373, 23 runs batted in) and catcher Melissa Marchese (.329, 23 RBI) — are coming off an impressive season as eighth-graders. Senior first baseman Shelby Curtin also hit over .300.

“We have a lot of girls that can hit,” said King.

Kaitlyn Flynn and Bailey Rand will help in the outfield.

A big plus for Shoreham is the return of Lindsey McKenna, a junior shortstop who started as a freshman before sitting out the entire 2015 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Outfielder Kathrine Opiela, pitcher Hannah Longboat and infielders Isabella DiPierro and Paige Ekert have been promoted from the junior varsity team.

“We are very young, and we are hoping to do some damage this year,” said King, adding, “This group of girls, they have the potential to surprise a lot of teams this year with the talent that they have.”

When Jackie Zilnicki’s time as a two-sport athlete at Western Connecticut State University came to an end, she realized there was another way for her to stay connected to sports — by coaching.

Zilnicki, a former Riverhead High School student-athlete who was twice named by The Riverhead News-Review as her school’s athlete of the year in 2007 and 2008, went on to more success at Western Connecticut. She played basketball and softball at the NCAA Division III school, becoming a second team all-American in softball her senior year. She was also the school’s female athlete of the year in 2013.

Then Zilnicki discovered coaching. She became an assistant coach for the Williams College (Mass.) softball team. She was hooked.


Now Zilnicki is coaching in her hometown, although at a different school than her alma mater. She takes over as Bishop McGann-Mercy’s new coach.

“I’m loving it,” she said. “I’m really enjoying it. It’s a good next chapter.”

Zilnicki said hard work, teamwork, respect and positivity are important to her, but she also wants her players to have fun.

The Monarchs (9-8), who lost to Hampton Bays in a first-round playoff game last year, will rely on two seniors, catcher Ali Hulse and centerfielder Jamie Lessard, who will probably be the team’s Nos. 3 and 4 hitters.

“They’re going to be our leaders on and off the field,” Zilnicki said. “They’re in prime positions.”

Olivia Valle and Kate Wilkie, who are both sophomores, are being looked at as possibilities for third base or shortstop. Prominent roles are also expected to be played by junior second baseman Margaret Terry, senior first baseman/outfielder Kristen Heimroth and sophomore pitcher Isabella Sorgi.

McGann-Mercy doesn’t have a junior varsity team, and the varsity squad is loaded with 17 players, giving Zilnicki and her assistant coach, former McGann-Mercy pitcher Rose Horton, a lot to look at and consider.

“That’s good because we have a lot of utility players who can play in the infield or the outfield,” she said. “And we have a lot of speed, so if we get on base, we’re going to be able to score runs.”

Zilnicki will get a better idea of how everything looks Monday when the Monarchs open their season in Mattituck.

“I’m really excited,” she said. “I’m excited to see what the girls can do and where we stand and what we can improve on.”


Returning to the playoffs — where Riverhead coach Jeff Doroski said his team belongs — was a good thing for the Blue Waves last year. Losing, 6-5, in eight innings to Half Hollow Hills West in the first round, however, soured the taste of that sweet accomplishment.

“They were happy with returning to the playoffs, but they don’t like the way it ended,” Doroski said of his players.

Coming off a 12-8 season, Riverhead is looking to return to the postseason with the aid of the pitching arm of junior Casey Plitt, who has pitched every game since her freshman year.

“She’s not a power pitcher, but she throws strikes and we’ve been able to play good defense behind her the first two years,” said Doroski, who takes a 21-19 record into his third season as the team’s coach. “I think if we continue that trend we’ll be in a lot of ballgames because of what she can do out there.”

Riverhead’s most pressing need is to replace its all-state shortstop, Danielle Napoli, who graduated.

“We got to fill that spot at short,” Doroski said. “Everything kind of starts up the middle.”

Kim Ligon, a sophomore who played third base and second base last year, is being looked to fill that spot. Doroski called her “a solid kid, a really hard worker, so I think she has the tools to play there.”

Brittany Staltare will handle the catching, Ally O’Kula is slotted at third base and Jessica Freeborn will play second base or in the outfield.

“I don’t know where we stand offensively right now, so we may try to scratch out some runs and play a little more small ball than we have in the past,” Doroski said. “When you have a productive number three hitter like Dani, you always had the opportunity to score some runs in bunches with her up at bat.”

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Photo caption: Riverhead trots into the new season after having reached the playoffs and gone 12-8 in 2015. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk, file)