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Softball Preview: Loss of pitcher a blow to Tuckers

Pitching, pitching, pitching.

The importance of pitching in high school softball cannot be overstated. No matter how you cut it, a team’s success always comes down to pitching.

Kim Gerstung knows that full well. That is why the Mattituck coach’s heart sank when she was told two days before the first practice that her starting pitcher, junior Madison Osler, opted to go out for the school’s track and field team rather than return to the softball team.

“It was devastating,” said Gerstung.

That leaves Mattituck (9-11 last year), which missed the playoffs by one game, facing a major hurdle.

The team’s only senior, Grace Izzo, and junior Ashley Chew, who both did some pitching last season, are candidates to fill the vital role as is Aniah Thompson, an eighth-grader new to the varsity scene.

It helps that Mattituck has an all-conference player in sophomore third baseman Jaden Thompson (.429 batting average, 20 runs batted in, 22 stolen bases), who is Aniah’s sister.

“She’s very strong,” Gerstung said. “Her defense is pretty solid. She played every game last year except for one and as a third baseman only had five errors. That says a lot.”

Also providing a big bat is sophomore first baseman/catcher Ashley Perkins (.444, 15 RBIs). Sophomore leftfielder Alexis Burns and junior centerfielder/catcher Jaime Gaffga were starters last year. Outfielders Cassidy Mullin and Jillian Gaffga (Jaime’s sister) also offer varsity experience.

First baseman/outfielder Kathryn Thompson, designated hitter Elvira Puluc and catcher/first baseman Julia Schimpf are new to the team.

Pitching, though, will be the difference-maker, one way or another.

“We are in a little bit of a bind,” Gerstung said. “It’s all going to depend on the pitching. Unfortunately, it’s a sport that relies heavily on one position.”

Southold/Greenport’s new coach, Skip Gehring, made some bold predictions. Not only did he state that the Clippers will qualify for the playoffs this year, but he declared his belief in their ability to win a Suffolk County Class C championship.

That’s saying a lot for a team that hasn’t been in a playoff game since 1997 and had a team batting average of .235. last year.

“Hitting was an issue last year,” said Gehring.

Despite its struggles at the plate, though, Southold still managed an 8-12 record.

The team’s focus in the opening weeks of practice has been on hitting. “I’ve been spending a lot of time working on the hitting, and the hitting has been dramatically improving,” Gehring said. “They’ve probably been getting about 300 to 400 swings a day.”

Another plus for Southold is the return of nine starters, led by all-league centerfielder Toni Esposito. The senior leadoff hitter had a .320 batting average and 16 steals last year.

“Toni Esposito is a phenomenal ballplayer,” Gehring said. “Leadership-wise, she really takes charge. A great athlete, she can play any position on the field.”

Southold has a junior battery, with Ashley Hilary (2.85 earned-run average) pitching to catcher Madison Hilton. The infield features senior first baseman Evelyn Cummings, junior second baseman Grace Syron, senior shortstop Katie Tuthill and junior third baseman Hannah Sutton (.310, 11 RBIs). Liz Clark, a junior, and senior Samantha Baldwin may join Esposito in the outfield.

Also on the team are second baseman Annette Newman, catcher Emily Newman, shortstop/second baseman Felicia Kayel, third baseman Kyra Panetta and first baseman Jillian Golden.

“I really believe that this year we are a playoff contender, and with all the returners coming back, there is a lot of experience on the softball field,” said Gehring.

Southold will play 17 regular-season games, three less than it is allowed, and that is by design. The team has no games April 8-18, and Gehring plans to use that 10-day period as an in-season training camp. He sees the week of solid practice at that point as being more valuable than playing a few games.

“They’re good athletes, they really are, but fundamentally there still are some flaws that we have to work on,” he said. “You don’t necessarily improve by playing games.”

Gehring said his players have “a lot of heart and desire and they really want to win, they really do.”

That’s where the hitting comes in. Gehring believes the team can hit over .300.

“We’re going to have hitters, one through nine,” he said. “In order to improve upon last year, all the work we put in on the hitting has to pay off. We have to hit.”

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Photo caption: Mattituck third baseman Jaden Thompson was an all-conference player last year as a freshman. She had a 429 batting average, 20 runs batted in and 22 stolen bases. (Credit: Garret Meade, file)