Former teammates, current rivals, still friends
Little League softball champions remain linked
DATE POSTED: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 3:33 PM EDT
By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
Their paths will cross as high school rivals this year, and then they will all go their separate ways next fall, but seven softball players in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district always will be linked by the Summer of 2006.
It’s when their careers took off with a District 12 Little League championship and appearance in the state final as the West Windsor Little League all-star softball team.
”If it wasn’t for the Little League, I definitely wouldn’t play softball,” said Kaitlin Perrine, the senior pitcher for WW-P High North. “If my Little League experience was different, if we hadn’t been as good as we were, I wouldn’t have loved the sport as much as I do.
”We got used to winning so much, we expected a lot of ourselves and our teammates. Our whole mental attitude is you need to win and you need to do your job on the field. We were taught that in Little League, and that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
It started at a young age, and they have the trophy to prove it. The active scholastic players gathered to pose with the District 12 Little League trophy they won six years ago together, a rare meeting of the seven of them.
”The trophy was huge,” said Knights first baseman Sarah Bush. “I did not remember it being that big. I’m sure in 2006, however old I was, to win a big trophy like that, that’s a big deal. Now you don’t even get trophies anymore.”
Of the 12 players that played for the 2006 West Windsor all-star softball team, more than half will be suiting up for WW-P schools this year. Bush, Brianna King, Perrine, Taylor Phelan and Emily Weinberg play for High School North while Hye-Jin Kim and Liz Mendez play for High School South. It’s a testament to the background they got early in their careers.
”I certainly have enjoyed seeing it,” said Mendez’s father, Hector, the manager of the 2006 team. “I think I’ve watched every high school game at High School South. And I’ve looked to see what’s going on at North. It’s been good to see them playing well. It’s exciting to see them doing well.”
Last year, nine players from his 2006 team were a part of the North-South rivalry game before Anna Schnitter and Jenna Modi graduated from the Pirates team. The nine is quite a return from the dozen that were just starting to get serious six years ago. They’re doing so well that five of this year’s six seniors are committed to playing in college.
”They were all really special,” Hector Mendez said. “They’re good athletes. That’s a start. They’ve worked hard to improve. They were all very good athletes and got good support from their families and had good coaching in school throughout. They like playing the game. It was never really work for them. It was fun.
”They’re still having a lot of fun. There’s some attitude now. They’re teenage girls. They have attitude, which is at times is good.”
Bush will attend Susquehanna University, King will head to Iona College, Mendez will play at St. Joseph’s University, Perrine will play for Lafayette College and Weinberg will play at Cornell University.
”This is where we all split off and go our separate ways,” said Liz Mendez, who will pitch at St. Joe’s. “I guess it’s exciting.
”I really never would have imagined it. I don’t think any of us would have imagined it when we were winning when we were 12 years old.”
Kim is just a junior at WW-P South, but has been narrowing her choices for where she would like to play in college.
”I’m a year younger than them,” Kim said. “I definitely wasn’t very good back then. I barely made the team. I sat the bench.”
Kim has come a long way. She is in her third year as starting shortstop at South, but as a Little Leaguer, she worked with Coach Mendez as an outfielder, though she still credits skills that she learned then.
”Playing with girls better than you, it inspired me in some way to get where I am today,” Kim said. “Playing on a good team helped. The coaching was good too. I improved a lot that summer. He was the first real softball coach I had.”
While Kim moved from outfield to infield, many of the players are in the same, or very close to the same, positions as when they were 12.
”I think I played shortstop,” said Taylor Phelan, who has played third base for North in her varsity career, but may be playing shortstop this season. “I guess you find your place and kind of want to hold on to it.”
King is still a catcher, and has been recruited to catch at Iona, though she could also see some time in outfield as a freshman.
”When I was really young, I did pitching and I did not like it at all,” King said. “When I put the gear on and tried catching, I fell in love with it. I knew I could block the ball and catch the ball. Mostly I had a really good arm. My coaches liked playing me at catcher. I love throwing girls out.
”In all-stars, there was a girl on second. She had a double and was taking really big leads. I threw down to Emily Weinberg and got her. That was during all-stars. I had grand slam home run. It was my first home run. It makes me smile just thinking about it.”
Weinberg is slated to play second at Cornell next year as well, though she’s open to anything. She was at second as a Little Leaguer.
”I think I was the little one,” Weinberg said. “I played second from the start. It kind of stuck. I like it.”
On the 2006 all-stars, Mendez and Perrine rotated turns in the circle, both growing into college-bound pitchers.
”My first season, I was terrible,” Perrine said. “I embarrassed myself. I will always remember the feeling of walking in runs. That’s when I said, I need a coach.”
Perrine developed into a three-year starter for the Knights, but she can still remember where the Pequannock girl hit the ball off her to win the state championship and end WW’s summer run.
”It’s one of those things you remember,” Perrine said. There were also plenty of great times that the 2006 all-stars recall. “The Little League was great to me. I loved it. I wish I could go back and be a kid. There was absolutely no pressure.”
Mendez has pitched four years for the Pirates.
”I remember when I was 10, I would beg my dad to get me pitching lessons,” Mendez said. “I had just gotten into it. I love Jerry Herrera. I’ve gone to him since I’ve been 10. I really owe a lot to him and where I’m at now. And my dad. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”
Hector Mendez and his staff certainly get credit from his former team for fostering their love of softball.
”He was a good coach,” Perrine said. “He taught us most of what we know now. Our basic skills came from him. He’s our biggest rival now, his daughter is. It doesn’t change what he did for us when we were young.”
Except when they face each other, there is still a strong sense of camaraderie among the former Little League teammates.
”I want to see the South girls do well,” Bush said. “We grew up together and learned how to take grounders together.”
Bush admits that her story is unique. She wasn’t originally going to play all-stars in 2006, but when Schnitter went to space camp, it opened a spot for her for the rest of the summer. She didn’t stick with softball right through to high school. She played lacrosse in middle school before returning to the diamond.
”I showed up freshman year at tryouts having worked with my dad,” Bush said. “I put in a lot of work to earn my spot and go on to that college level.
”I think I just wanted to try a whole bunch of new things. I tried them for a while, but I always went back to softball. I played lacrosse for two years, but then went back to softball.”
She was a back-up catcher and third baseman for the 2006 all-stars, but has been at first base since her sophomore year with the Knights. She has the chance to DH immediately at Susquehanna and could start at first base as well. First, however, she’s determined to leave her mark at WW-P North.
This year’s North-South meetings will be the last in the rivalry for the players with six of them graduating. Their careers began together, but they have gotten used to trying to beat the other in recent seasons.
”It’s pretty quick,” Phelan said. “You get to be a freshman and all the upperclassmen egg you on. They put the rivalry right on top. We’ll always be friends, but. . .”
But on May 2, when the teams meet at the R.J. Ward complex where they won so many games together, they won’t be friends for the game.
”It’s North, we’ve got to beat them,” Mendez said. “That’s what I’m thinking for sure.”
The game will bring together the last West Windsor 12-year-old all-star softball team to win a district crown.
”I remember being with the team all the time, and having great chemistry and working together and overcoming all the obstacles to make it all the way to states,” said Weinberg. “I think we’re pretty much the same, we’re just older and more mature. We’re still pretty much the little 12-year-olds we were in Little League.”