MONTGOMERY: Athlete of the Week

Pizzolato aids MHS vs. No. 1

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   Against the top-ranked team in the state, the Montgomery High School softball team turned to Rachel Pizzolato to pitch.
   The junior had always shown potential coming up through the ranks, and this year the Cougars have been able to give her more responsibility.
   ”I think it’s finally clicked that she’s a varsity athlete,” said MHS head coach Johnny Rooney. “She’s become way more responsible and way more independent as a student-athlete. She’s really trying on and off the field. One of the biggest things that this team has shown is that they believe in her. She’s got the tools.”
   Pizzolato has been proving it all season, but at no time more than she did against Hunterdon Central last Tuesday. Pizzolato allowed only one run on one hit while striking out eight as the Cougars upended the state’s top-ranked team, 6-1. They followed with convincing wins over Franklin, and Pizzolato worked the first five innings before Casey Niper came on in relief in the Cougars’ 6-2 win over Rutgers Prep in the Somerset County Tournament quarterfinals.
   ”Last year, I was only on the team for a little bit,” said Pizzolato, who is 9-0. “This year, I feel like I stepped it up a lot more. By watching Casey, I’ve learned a lot from her.”
   Niper pitched the majority of last year’s games for MHS, but the emergence of Pizzolato this season has allowed Niper, a senior four-year varsity player, to play shortstop and anchor the Cougars’ defense. Niper is a righty; Pizzolato is a lefty.
   ”They’ve really shared the job,” Rooney said. “They’ve kind of worked off each other’s energy.
   ”Pitching from the left side, as it’s an advantage in baseball in every level, it’s got its advantages in softball. Ray’s not the first lefty to be successful at Montgomery. We’ve had three. She certainly has earned everything that she’s gotten to do this year.”
   Nothing, though, compares to the complete-game performance in the win over Hunterdon Central. It is the marquee win this season for the Cougars, who are 18-1.
   ”It was a really big win,” Pizzolato said. “That was one of our team’s goals to beat them because they’re the No. 1 team in the state.”
   Rachel Pizzolato is the Princeton Packet Athlete of the Week.
   ”I’ve been coaching eight years and 12 as an assistant,” Rooney said. “You take away state finals and county finals, and it’s the biggest win that Montgomery’s ever had. It was on their field, and I’m not sure if Montgomery has beaten a No. 1 team in any sport. But as a coaching staff, it was the most relaxed and laid back game we’ve had. We were not expected to win. It was the most fun game to coach.
   ”The kids won the game. They executed when they needed to. They fielded their positions behind Rachel, and hit.”
   When Pizzolato isn’t pitching for the Cougars, they use her bat as the designated player. Pizzolato hits even better when she pitches. She doubled to earn an insurance run against Hunterdon Central.
   ”I’m more into the game when I’m pitching than when I’m DPing and sitting down,” she said.
   Though Pizzolato has taken on more responsibility this season, she hasn’t felt there’s been too much pressure on her. Pitching for a strong and supportive MHS team has been a big help.
   ”I have a really good defense behind me,” said Pizzolato, whose older sister Kara is the starting left fielder for the Cougars. “Even if a team hits me and scores runs, I have confidence we can get them back. We’ve been good about hitting and picking each other up.
   ”We’ve been practicing hard and everyone has been getting the job done,” she added. “As a team, we’ve been really good.”
   Pizzolato’s pitching is one piece of that success. Against Hunterdon Central, it was her screwball that proved most effective. The eight strikeouts were a lot for her.
   ”I feel like I have more confidence this year,” Pizzolato said. “I have more confidence in the defense behind us. And we’ve been hitting so well, I feel like we can get the runs back if we give up any.
   ”I really don’t feel that much pressure just because we have such good team chemistry.”
   Pizzolato has fit in well this season after spending most of last season studying how Niper handled situations and opponents.
   ”I learned a lot from her last year,” Pizzolato said. With Niper graduating this year, it will be Pizzolato’s role next season to mentor a less experienced pitcher from Montgomery’s stable of throwers.
   This season, she is being called upon regularly to give the Cougars the sort of steady performances for which Niper has become known. Pizzolato is thrilled that the Cougars have found success using both in the circle.
   ”It’s been really effective,” she said. “They’re not just seeing one of us pitch. If they start hitting me or start hitting Casey, we’ll put in the other person. It’s been really effective.”
   Pizzolato admits it’s a lot more exciting to be a part of the action than always studying from the sidelines. And it’s bound to get more exciting as the Cougars get deeper into tournament play. Their lone loss this season came in the Nottingham Tournament. Saturday, they will host Somerville in the SCT semifinals, and the state tournament is just around the corner.
   ”We’re doing really well this season,” Pizzolato said. “We have high goals set to do really well in states and counties.”
   Rachel Pizzolato will factor into the Cougars’ tournament success. It’s a new responsibility, one that she’s proven she can handle this season even in the biggest spots.
   ”Ray pitched some big games in March,” Rooney said. “She pitched that huge game against Central. She shared a county win. Casey and Ray both know they’ll have to both be ready to throw, whether it’s five or all seven. She has to continue to stay focused and keep her composure on and off the field.”