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It has been 20 years since a memorable Montclair softball team, the only one from the school to ever reach a state final, put together a season for the ages, including knocking off a tremendous Clifton team in the Group 4 semis that season. The recent performance of the 2016 Mounties reminded some of the prior success of the program in decades past. (photos courtesy of Jim Zarrilli)
In a bit of 'Four Degrees of Separation,' Montclair's 1996 softball team had a connection to all four first-team all-state pitchers selected by The Star-Ledger that spring season, including a 'Player of the Century,' Laura Tynio of Clifton.
Longtime Essex County softball fan Eddie Bates captures the game-winning hit for Montclair against Clifton in Group 4 semifinal at Lenape Valley that 1996 June afternoon as the Mounties' Melissa Kern delivers RBI triple in top of the eighth inning to break 0-0 tie. The ball can be seen in upper left corner of the photo as it begins its flight well over the heads of the Clifton fielders.
Montclair freshman Amber Matthews' successful bunt which led to a fielder's choice and what proved to be the winning run crossing the plate in the top of the ninth inning in the Mounties' stunning 4-3 ECT quarterfinal win at Mount St. Dominic was a new moment to remember for Montclair's softball program which had a late-season surge in 16. (Photo by Bill Allen-NJSportAction.NET)
One of the 1996 Montclair softball team's biggest wins that spring was a 6-0 triumph over the rival Bloomfield Bengals in North 2, Group sectional final.
Montclair's Great 1996 Season
The hopes were high as the two winning teams – West Essex and Montclair High - filed out of Essex County Ivy Hill Park on Friday night, May 20 th, after the Mountie softball faithful had watched yet another superlative effort by the surprising 2016 team which had just advanced to an Essex County Tournament final for the first time since 2005.
It was like ‘old school’ night in a sense for some, what with the pitcher who helped get the Mounties to the ECT final in ’05 – one Caitlin Bishop – in the stands at Ivy Hill to cheer on her high school in its big semifinal win over Livingston.
Jim Zarrilli was another of the ardent followers of another memorable Mountie team was also in the stands at Ivy Hill this past Friday night. It was 20 years ago that he had watched his daughter Christine pitch MHS to a first and still only Group 4 state final in June of 1996. Most recently he had the chance to enjoy observing a true Cinderella–like local softball story develop in such unexpected fashion as the ninth-seeded Mounties became a modern-day MHS squad to make its own magnificent run to a championship game.
“Have we ever seen a team at Montclair rise out of virtually nowhere like this season’s softball squad?,” Zarrilli asked. “They did just an incredible job to reach the county tournament final, and obviously the adjustments that the coaching staff made along the way this season really paid off because this team really played well and has been an absolute joy to watch!”
Zarrilli couldn’t help but also remind this columnist of a team we both enjoyed observing two decades ago, one which left its own indelible mark on MHS sports history.
It’s now 20 years since Melissa Kern hit a booming triple to plate Courtney Mills in the top of the eighth inning as the Mounties upset then No. 1-ranked Clifton, 1-0, in the Group 4 state semifinals in a memorable contest played at Lenape Valley in Stanhope.
Essex County’s No. 1 softball fan Eddie Bates used his camera to capture the booming blast to left hit by Kern on camera with the ball seen sailing deep over a seemingly-stunned Mustang defense which appeared frozen in time, at least for a precious couple of seconds.
Like the upstart, young 2016 Mounties who saw their ECT hopes finally dashed with an 11-3 loss to powerful, second-seeded West Essex in last Saturday’s ECT final, the 1996 MHS softball team – a much more seasoned group than the current squad – also fell to a superior squad in its Group 4 final that season at Toms River North as soon-to-be No. 1 ranked Cherokee roared past the ’96 Mounties, 11-0.
Leaving a hot and steamy Toms River that afternoon and heading South on the Parkway to a favorite Jersey shore location on Long Beach Island, this columnist felt the cool breeze which was perfect to help conjure up thoughts of what had just occurred that June, 1996 Saturday afternoon.
It had been a Mountie team that overcame a quarterfinal setback in the ECT to Bloomfield to rebound with gusto, includingy beating the Bengals and their all-state pitcher Kristen Gengaro, 6-0, in the North 2, Group 4 state sectional final at Pulaski Park.
Next came the aforementioned, huge win over a highly-touted Clifton team and its sophomore ace hurler at the time, Laura Tynio, who would go on to finish 67-1 for her incredible high school career with her only defeat at the hands of the Mounties. She was also named to The Star-Ledger’s All-Century Team.
If you have ever read ‘Six Degrees of Separation,’ by author John Guare, you will understand the reference to the ’96 Mounties’ ‘Four Degrees…’ where connected circumstances were intertwined by a certain sport team’s flow of a tournament run.
In the case of the ’96 Montclair Mounties softball team, they had a connection in a sense to all four first-team all-state pitchers that spring as they defeated both Bloomfield’s Gengaro and Clifton’s Tynio, who in turn had defeated West Milford’s all-stater Karin Kolatec when the Mustangs had defeated the Highlanders in the North 1, Group 4 final.
Then, in the fateful Group 4 state final vs. mighty Cherokee, the Mounties ran into the fourth first team all-state hurler that season in the South Jersey softball juggrnaut’s outstanding Debbie Klawiter.
Along with its ace pitcher Christine Zarrilli and the shortstop Kern, who went on to a solid career for coach Ray VanderMay at Seton Hall University, other Mounties to remember from that ’96 team included third baseman Maleka Brown, who went on to play at Monmouth University; catcher Kristina Tan, who played at Bucknell; second baseman Jen Pasqualicchio and center fielder Allison Tan, Kristina’s younger sister, and went on to play at Haverford.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since those terrific 1996 Mounties (22-7), who remain an important historical reference point for the sport at MHS as no one has yet made it back to group finals championship weekend which is now played at Kean University.
The 2002 Mounties, guided by Trish Palmieri and led by Marybeth King in the circle, won a North 2, Group 4 state sectional crown, but then lost to West Milford in the Group 4 semifinals.
Jim Zarrilli, who later became the Mounties head coach for four seasons from 2006-2009, was an assistant coach on the 2005 MHS team that reached the ECT final with Bishop in the circle.
He had also watched the first products of the Montclair Stars junior softball program he put together in town in 1991 eventually emerge as key performers on that ’96 squad, including his own daughter, Kern, The Tans and Brown.
Now, there are very recent stories and photos to cherish for current Montclair softball fans, and hopes for the future are bright as second-year coach Phil Delgado has a solid nucleus, including talented juniors Jessie Masur (pitcher) Lily Silverstein (catcher) and Paige Davenport (first base) and very promising freshman such as Frankie Testa (shortstop) and Amber Matthews (outfield) to build around and also have them continue to gain from the experience of an incredible surge in the 2016 ECT as a once 3-13 squad made a stupendous run that was highlighted by a memorable and improbable 4-3 quarterfinal triumph in nine innings at top-seeded and then two-time defending ECT champion Mount St. Dominic.
From that tremendous core group that helped build the 1996 Mountie softball season all the way up to the youngsters that brought about the unexpected thrills created in 2016, Montclair softball fans now have a generation of memories to look back on and use as reference points in the years to come.
Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister
Junior Jessie Masur created some new memories for Montclair's softball fans with her fine work in the circle for 2016 ECT runner-up. (Photo by Bill Allen)
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