The Richard Stockton College softball team plans to take the momentum of an undefeated Florida trip and carry it through the rest of the season.
Stockton opened its season by going 10-0 during two weeks in Florida this month and stands at 13-1 after two home doubleheaders.
Coach Val Julien's Ospreys begin the tougher New Jersey Athletic Conference schedule today with a doubleheader at home against powerful Montclair State University. The first game is at 1 p.m.
Montclair (14-0) is the top-ranked team in NCAA Division III by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association. The Red Hawks are led by ace pitcher Alex Hill (11-0), who has a 0.23 ERA.
"Our conference is one of the toughest in the country, and Montclair adds to that," Julien said. "The College of New Jersey and Rowan (currently 22nd) were also ranked earlier. Playing them prepares us to get to the (NCAA) Regionals. We have big challenges, but we've done tremendous things so far and we're looking to continue."
Two key Stockton players are shortstop Grace Long (Egg Harbor Township High School) and right fielder Rachel Forte (Vineland). Both are juniors. Sophomore Stephanie Hand has started sometimes time at third base, and she's a backup pitcher who was the winner in relief in a 5-4 victory at home against St. Joseph's College (Patchogue, N.Y.) on Thursday.
Stockton finished 25-15 last season but was only 6-12 in the NJAC, losing seven conference games by one run. Two of those losses were to Montclair State - 3-2 and 4-3.
Long hit .359 last year (42-of-117) and set a Stockton single-season record with eight home runs. She also led the team with 10 doubles and 27 RBIs.
The Ospreys had a similar Florida trip last, going 9-1. Stockton lost to Albright College 5-3 during the 2012 trip but beat the Lions 6-0 this year.
"We lost a lot to graduation after last year, but we reloaded with a lot of good players," Julien said. "We're going to face great teams and tough times. We want to stay in the medium level of focus and intensity, and not get too high or too low. That's our mantra for the year, and it's worked well so far."
Stockton's Jessica Goncalves is hitting .539 (21-for-39). Nicole Scanlon is hitting .387 (12-for-31), and Dominique Dorris is at .407 (11-for-27). Starting pitchers Michelle Pietrocola and Brittany Ksiezopolski are 7-0 and 5-1, respectively. Forte is hitting .240 (6-for-25) with five runs and five RBIs. Long is at .243 (8-for-33) but hit her first homer of the year Thursday in a 2-1 loss to St. Joseph's in the first game of the doubleheader. She has four doubles and five RBIs.
Long played third base last year and is now at shortstop.
"I basically played shortstop my whole career, and that's mostly what I played in high school," said Long, 21. "Hitting, I've personally struggled a little, but the team as a whole is hitting the cover off the ball. We're just taking it one day at a time. We have a lot of new people and so many backups. The freshman class is awesome. They play like veterans."
Forte had the game winning hit on March 13 in a 4-3 win over The College of Wooster (Ohio) in Ft. Myers, Fla. She went 1-for-2 with an RBI in both games as the Ospreys swept Hunter College (N.Y.) last Saturday in Galloway Township.
"I think this year we're very focused," said Forte, a 21-year-old Vineland resident. "We treat every team like a tough opponent and keep going like it's 0-0 throughout the game. I'm starting to hit second (in the order). My duty is to move the runners and get RBIs. I usually hit to right field."
Julien is in her 27th season as Stockton's coach, the longest tenure of any NJAC softball coach. The Ospreys have won at least 20 games in each of the last eight seasons.
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