There was a time when the Lincoln High School softball program was the utter laughingstock of the area, perhaps the single worst athletic program in all sports in the entire county. The 1962 Mets were world beaters in comparison. Charlie Brown punted the football with Lucy holding it more than the Lions won. Same goes for Wile E. Coyote catching the Road Runner.
The Lions regularly lost by 15 or more runs – every time. The better programs in the county would schedule doubleheaders against Lincoln on purpose, just so they could get two wins and get on with their lives. There were some times that Lincoln lost by more than 40 runs. Yes, in softball. Even the Bad News Bears weren’t that bad.
There were several seasons, maybe even decades, when the Lions went winless. It seemed to be a hopeless situation.
Enter Rob Mauriello.
The Weehawken native, who has been an assistant coach with the Lincoln boys’ basketball program for many years, took over the Lincoln softball program eight years ago.
Mauriello once aspired to become a police officer, like his younger brother Anthony currently is in Weehawken. He also had dreams of becoming a state trooper.
But something lured him into the world of teaching.
“I just figured that the kids needed some structure in their lives,” Mauriello said. “I was just about to get the call to be a trooper when I got sucked in by the kids and I’ve been here ever since.”
When Mauriello took over the program, the Lions were in the midst of their winless drought.
“We didn’t win a game my first two years,” Mauriello said. “The kids would try, but we just couldn’t win. But we gradually made some progress over the years.”
Progress means a win here, a win there, and a lot of losses in between.
But last season, there was major progress with the program. The Lions actually won 11 games and qualified for the state and Hudson County playoffs for the very first time.
“We were very competitive last year,” Mauriello said. “I could see that we were making major strides.”
Mauriello, who serves as a disciplinarian at Lincoln full-time, carries the same respect for discipline to the softball diamond.
“The one thing we take pride in is discipline,” Mauriello said. “I would always substitute talent for the well behaved student, the good student, the good citizen. That’s what we’ve done more than anything else. We train them to become good softball players, but also to become better people.”
There was an excitement about Lincoln softball this spring, because an astounding 50 young women tried out for the program. This is the same Lincoln softball program that had a tough time fielding nine kids to play a game in years past. Now, there were 50 kids interested.
“It amazed me, because we only get like 18 kids to try out for boys’ basketball,” Mauriello said. “But the kids are having fun and they’re spreading the word. I may be strict as a coach, but I mean well. These kids need structure and want structure. I can provide that. And they will become good citizens. That’s how we turned this program around. If they’re good citizens first, the softball will follow.”
The Lions are enjoying an unfathomable season. After defeating University Charter on Tuesday, the Lions now own a 15-4 record, easily shattering last year’s mark as the best softball season in school history.
A program that couldn’t win 15 games in a span of six years or so has now compiled 15 wins in a single season. It borders on the incredible, one of the more remarkable turnarounds ever recorded in Hudson County.
But Mauriello said that he’s not that surprised by the ascension into the county’s elite.
“I hate to say it, but we were kind of expecting it,” Mauriello said. “We really put a lot of time in. There’s been a huge commitment from the coaching staff and they’ve stuck with it. We made the state and county playoffs last year and I really thought we could do the same thing this year. That was the goal.”
The Lions were also helped by the addition of two talented newcomers who once played for the now-defunct program at County Prep.
Junior Amanda Cortes is the Lions’ pitcher. Fellow junior Ivelisse Morales is the team’s catcher. They both still attend County Prep, but are able to play softball with the Lions.
“Amanda is an effective pitcher,” Mauriello said. “She’s not overpowering. She just throws strikes. She’s a pleasure to watch. Ivelisse is a good defensive catcher. They’ve really helped our team. They’re extremely dedicated, because they have to get to us every day at 3:45 p.m. after their last class. It’s kind of hard for them, but they’re here all the time. They are both team players and were accepted right away.”
Mauriello said that he has been impressed with the way both Cortes and Morales have been working with the other Lions players.
“They have stepped in and really helped the others learn more about the game,” Mauriello said.
Senior Indigo Hatcher is the first baseman and a team captain.
“She’s been a part of the program since she came to Lincoln,” Mauriello said. “When she started, she couldn’t even put on her glove the right way. Now, she’s a money first baseman. She’s the leader of the team.”
Senior Skyle Wolkowski is the second baseman.
“She’s been solid,” Mauriello said. “She plays the ball and makes the plays.”
Junior Raquel Smith is the shortstop. She is a student at Liberty Academy, but is able to play for the Lions.
“She’s doing very well,” Mauriello said. “She plays multiple positions, like first base, third base, catchers. She’s up for any challenge. She is one of our better hitters, a power hitter.”
Another Liberty Academy student is senior Imani Valle, the Lions’ third baseman.
“Both Raquel and Imani have played for us before, but they’re the first ones we got from Liberty Academy,” Mauriello said.
The left fielder is senior Ganaia Swinton, another four-year player.
“When she started with us, she didn’t know how to throw or catch,” Mauriello said. “Now she has great range and gets to everything. She’s also our leadoff hitter and gets on base.”
Seniors Barbara Brundage and Johanna Washington share the duties in centerfield.
“They’re all extremely fast out there and they’re also disruptive on the bases,” Mauriello said. “We’re utilizing their speed.”
Senior Suleima Villa holds the fort in right field.
Needless to say, it’s been a season to remember with the Lincoln softball team.
“When I started this, I have to say that I was skeptical,” Mauriello said. “I’m a basketball guy. I worked with [Lincoln head basketball coach] Troy [Smith] and I used to make fun of girls’ sports. Now I see how important it is. Sports builds up confidence and helps them grow. I’m excited to see this happen. I think we’re all getting a lot of pleasure out of it.”
The Lions will now see how the big teams live and play. They face top-seeded North Bergen in the next round of the Hudson County Tournament this weekend. If the Lions can manage to knock off the mighty Bruins, then it’s truly a miracle happening in Bergen-Lafayette.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.
You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.