If there was any concern about Immaculate Conception’s softball pitching staff heading into this season, freshmen Sarah Piening and Andee Lupica have quieted any critics during the first three weeks.
And it doesn’t look they’ll be slowing down anytime soon.
With seven returning starters from last year’s state finalist, but no returning pitcher with any significant experience, the blossoming stars have burst on to the scene, leading the Blue Wolves to 14 straight wins to begin the year.
“We don’t have a No. 1,” IC coach Jeff Horohonich said after Piening fired her first career no-hitter in a 10-0 six-inning win over Hasbrouck Heights on Monday.
“We have a 1-A and a 1-A.”
Piening and Lupica have picked up all the wins for IC (14-0), essentially taking turns on the mound. They’ve thrown nine shutouts, including one no-hitter apiece, and allowed just 12 earned runs with one of the toughest schedules in North Jersey.
“I think a lot of people might have underestimated us because we’re freshmen,” said Piening, 15, who has worked under the tutelage of John Stratton and is 8-0 with a 0.42 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 50 innings.
“But we’ve come in right away and kind of proven ourselves so far. And our team is so supportive. They pick us up; they don’t get mad at anything. They’re always there to help and they’ve been making plays behind us.”
Piening and Lupica (6-0, 1.05 ERA, 68 Ks in 30 innings) considered attending Immaculate Heart, but opted for Immaculate Conception instead — a program where they believed they could see playing time right away.
Any questions surrounding the Blue Wolves entering the season started and ended with the pitching. Could the Blue Wolves win a state title with two freshmen sharing the mound? Horohonich certainly believed so, and does so even more now.
“Oh, without a doubt,” Horohonich said. “Without a doubt. They’re both very talented and are only going to get better and better as the year goes on. … I don’t have a problem throwing either of them. They both work hard, they listen, and they’ve been a joy to coach.
“People have been saying, ‘Oh, you have two freshman pitchers,’ but I think it’s a good problem to have. They’re both showing what they’re capable of.”
Lupica, “a bulldog who throws a heavy ball,” according to Horohonich, and plays a slick third base when she’s not in the circle, has played for and received lessons from Pequannock coach Maryann Goodwin.
On April 14, Lupica got the win against her former club coach in Immaculate Conception’s 3-2 victory over the Golden Panthers — the defending Group 2 champs.
“I was really excited about that one,” Lupica said with a smile.
Through 14 games, it appears Piening and Lupica — coupled with a stacked lineup featuring Shannon Truppi, Erin Stacevicz, Lea Georgatos and now Gabby Slade (a Pascack Valley transfer) — not only have what it takes to get back to Toms River for the state final, but to win it this time.
“We’ve got two quality kids, so why have only one pitch?” Horohonich said. “We’re fortunate to have them both here now. The nice thing about them both is that they’re so competitive. They love what they do. They love to win.”
At 14-0, they’ve been doing a lot of it, too.