Danielle Lugo ensures Lions stand tall during final season

Danielle Lugo, of Vineland, says the imminent closing of Sacred Heart High School only brought the softball team closer together this spring. ‘This was our last time trying, and we tried our hardest to make it happen,’ she said of the Lions’ championship aspirations.

Danielle Lugo's opponents have underestimated her at times throughout her softball career.

There is nothing visually intimidating about the Sacred Heart High School softball player, one of the shortest catchers in southern New Jersey at 5-foot-2.

"They underestimate me a little because I'm small," Lugo, a junior, said.

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And then she steps out on the field.

"They'll figure it out," Lugo said with a laugh.

Lugo was the catalyst behind one of the most prolific offenses the Cape-Atlantic League has had in recent years.

She led the Lions to Cape-Atlantic League National Conference and South Jersey Non-Public B titles and is the 2013 Press Softball Player of the Year.

"She makes our offense go," Sacred Heart coach Les Olson said. "That's why she has been in our leadoff spot the last two years.

"Her plate discipline with 29 walks was incredible, and I may be partial but I think she is the best defensive catcher around."

The defending State Non-Public B champions Lions won the sectional title for the second straight season before losing in the state Non-Public B final, but not before setting a school record for wins with 31.

The Lions battled distractions all season.

As the defending state champions, Sacred Heart was a marked team. But looming even larger was the impending closing of the school due to low enrollment.

"That actually made us stronger," Lugo said. "We just kept pushing and working hard.

"We have always put up a fight. This was our last time trying, and we tried our hardest to make it happen. … It was great. I'm proud of us."

Lugo batted .385 with a .518 on-base percentage. She scored a team-high 48 runs to go along with five doubles, three triples, one home run and 26 RBIs.

Lugo struck out only four times all season and walked a team-high 29 times.

She also made only one error all season while allowing just two stolen bases.

Lugo lives in Vineland and likely will attend Vineland High School next season. She's one of a number of Sacred Heart players who will make an immediate impact wherever they go next year.

Team of the Year

Sacred Heart players said all season they wanted to go out in style, and that's exactly what the Lions did.

Sacred Heart won a school-record 31 games en route to Cape-Atlantic League National Conference and South Jersey Non-Public B titles this season.

Sacred Heart (31-4 overall, 16-0 conference) finished the year ranked third in The Press Elite 11 and is the Press 2013 Softball Team of the Year.

Much of the talk surrounding Sacred Heart this season focused on the school's closing.

Olson preferred to talk about softball.

"We went forward and we didn't talk about it that much," he said. "We focused on trying to get back to Toms River (for the state championship), and to the girl's credit, they got it done.

"Thirty-one wins is incredible. Breaking the school record for wins in a season and having the target on your back as defending state champions is enough pressure, and then with all the news of the closing, it's just a credit to these girls."

Coach of the Year

Buena Regional High School coach Pam Pickett has won more than 500 games as head coach and has a laundry list of titles and other accomplishments from throughout her 26-year tenure.

But Pickett wasn't interested in reminiscing this season. She preferred instead to focus all of her attention on this year's team and it paid off.

Pickett is the 2013 Press Softball Coach of the Year.

Buena flew under the radar a bit after graduating a talented senior class last season, but the Chiefs went 26-5 this spring and won the South Jersey Group II championship, the school's first sectional title since 1990.

"They certainly were determined to get where they wanted to go, and then they got there," Pickett said. "It was nice watching them get there."

Pickett was quick to mention all of her assistants and volunteers as well as her family, particularly husband, Thomas Carr.

"I have a very patient husband who doesn't get a good meal from March until June each year," Pickett said, before catching herself. "Not that I was a good cook before that."

Pickett has started to field questions about when she plans to retire from coaching and says she takes it one year at a time.

"The girls make a lot of sacrifices throughout the season to play softball at Buena and these girls never deviated from that," Pickett said. "We ask them to respect the program and they always do.

"I am blessed to have athletes that are willing to make the commitment. When I think they are no longer wanting to do that, then maybe it will be my time to leave. We ask a lot and we get a lot."

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