The Sacred Heart High School softball team entered this season looking for an encore performance of last year's run to a state Non-Public B title.
The Lions found out recently, however, that this also will be the team's final season after the Vineland school announced last week it would close its doors at the end of this school year.
"This year and softball is what I have to focus on right now," junior catcher Danielle Lugo said. "Next year will come. My priority right now is this year and finishing strong."
Sacred Heart went 27-6 last season, winning a South Jersey Non-Public B title before heading north for the first state title in school history.
This season, Sacred Heart is off to a 6-0 start after a 2-0 win against Cape-Atlantic League National Conference rival Buena Regional on Wednesday. The Lions are ranked No. 5 in The Press Elite 11.
Sacred Heart coach Les Olson is 202-70 in his 10th and final season as head coach.
Olson said he tried to tell his team to put last season's success in the past.
"We talked over the winter about putting that behind us," Olson said. "It's a new team, a new family this year. It all starts over."
The Lions are strong up the middle.
Lugo and pitcher Rosie LaGrotta have been working together for three seasons and have become one of South Jersey's top batteries.
"We have become so much closer since our freshman year," LaGrotta said. "We're friends outside of school too. We have fun. We cheer each other on and laugh.
"She is great behind the plate."
The juniors were both first-team Press All-Stars last season.
"She is basically my other half," Lugo said. "Without her, I can't do my job."
Lugo is the team's leadoff hitter. She is batting .500 (9-for-18) with 11 RBIs, a double, a home run and seven walks. She has struck out just once.
LaGrotta is 5-0 with two shutouts and a 0.85 ERA.
"We certainly have been lucky to have those two for two full years already," Olson said. "And they are getting better and better each year."
Shortstop Kelly Hullihen and second baseman Sam Caterina give the team a solid middle infield. Lindsay Dwyer (7-for-14 with five RBIs and four doubles) anchors the middle of the lineup and leads the outfield.
"We have to keep going hard," Lugo said. "Nobody is just going to hand it to us. We know that teams are going to come harder at us because they know our potential so we have to come ready to play every game."
The Lions have a tough schedule, designed to get them ready for pressure-packed games at the end of the season.
Sacred Heart will face host Hammonton on Saturday in the first round of the prestigious Hammonton Invitational tournament. The Lions also play nonconference games with Camden Catholic, Gloucester Catholic, Millville and Vineland.
Lugo lives in Vineland High School's sending district but said she has not decided on her plans for next year yet. LaGrotta lives in the Franklinville section of Franklin Township and would attend Delsea Regional.
But there is work to be done first.
"I want to go out with a bang this year," LaGrotta said. "That would be great."
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