When you do what I do for a living as long as I have, you hear things. More precisely, people tell you stuff.
People always tell me to keep an eye out for such-and-such team or player on the youth level that is going to tear it up once they get to high school. Sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong.
But I hear things and I appreciate getting a heads up on a possible up-and-comer.
So why am I telling you this? Well, I have heard about the success Vernon was having on the youth level in softball for the last few years. While the varsity program was struggling I was told help was on the way if this young group of players stayed together and did not go the route of the non-publics.
After winning just four games combined in 2013 and 2014, Vernon picked up eight wins in 2015 and in 2016 the Vikes went 9-18 and qualified for the states for the first time in a very long time with a squad that had just two senior starters.
The Vikes had a good core of young players coming back this season but it is a talented freshmen class that has people thinking championship for the first time in Vernon since the late 1990s.
I know it is only a six-game sample-size but Vernon has not just busted out of the gate, the Vikings have trampled it. Vernon has started the season 6-0 with a perfect 4-0 record in the Freedom Division and it sits alone in first place in the division at the midway point of the division slate, outscoring its opponents 69-6.
“This is all on them,” said Vernon coach and former High Point star Kerry Ludeking. “They are working hard and they are a team that stays together and doesn’t give up. They believe in everything they do. They are strong. They are tough. They have worked so hard in the offseason and they deserve everything they are doing.”
I don’t think anyone saw this coming, not even Ludeking, who has stuck with the program through the lean years. She knew the youngsters were talented but the jump to varsity ball can be a tough one.
But someone forgot to tell that to pitcher Tori Grifone and fellow frosh Olivia Vizzini and Olivia Amorosi and sophomore Gabby Colon.
Grifone has been marvelous in going 5-0 with 0.86 ERA in 32 1/3 innings pitched with 53 strikeouts in the circle. She can also swing the swing bat and is hitting .467.
I have heard about Grifone the last couple of years living in Vernon and she has not disappointed.
“Tori has been pitching since she was a little girl so she has time and games behind her and she knows what she is doing,” said Ludeking. “She has a good head on her shoulders and she is very mature. She is going to work hard and she has no distractions so if she can stay that way for the next four years I think we will be okay.”
Ludeking had a nice smile on her face when she said that last sentence and I can’t blame her. Vernon’s last softball crown came I believe in 1998 when the last great Vernon pitcher, Emily Trenz, led the Vikings to the Sussex County Interscholastic League crown.
Vernon was a major player in SCIL softball in the 1980s and 1990s. But when the SCIL disbanded in 2009 Vernon was put in the big-school division of the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference and the Vikes have struggled.
In fact, until this season, Vernon had not won a division game since it beat Mount Olive 3-2 in 2012 if my research is correct. That is almost five years without a win in your own division. Needless to say a long time.
When Vernon first joined the NJAC it was a Group 4 school and should have been in the big school loop. Now the Vikings are a mid-sized Group 2 and the NJAC correctly moved them in all sports to the Group 2 Freedom Division and the Vikings are reaping the benefits.
Before the Lenape Valley game I was wondering were the Vikings for real. But after thumping the Pats I have no doubt they are the favorite to win the Freedom and make some noise in the upcoming Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex and state tournaments.
“This is a huge deal,” said Ludeking of sitting in first place. “To ever have this happen to Vernon and have them go for the banner this year is an amazing thing. I think if they keep their heads on straight and don’t go over the top and they continue to play Vernon softball, I hope that banner comes back to our home.”
The Vikings are not just the “The Tori Show.” No far from it. The Vikings can hit and then some. They won most of their games last year with their sticks and have several good hitters back this season to go along with the talented newcomers.
Junior Franki Potocki (.550), junior veteran catcher Gianna Valsoaney (.300), and sophomore Natalie Alheidt (.409) all had good seasons last year and have laid the foundation for Grifone, budding superstar Vizzini (.591), who hit a blast over both fences at Lenape Valley, Amorosi (.417) and Colon (.375) as well as Ally Latham (.471), Nicole Struble (.529) and key bench players Katie Owens, Melissa Lancelotti, Kalin Schofeld and Taylor Krasnomowicz.
“It is extremely gratifying,” said Ludeking of the fast start and the Vikings’ potential. “I’m thankful for them. It is so nice to finally have a group of athletes who just want to work hard. We always had them, we just never had enough of them all at once so it is sweet to have this feeling.”
So are the Vikes for real when it comes to Pope John, Jefferson and Sparta? Good question. Vernon is only scheduled to play Sparta and that is at the end of the regular season.
I would imagine Vernon would be more competitive than its ever been against the top three teams in the area. But those teams are decided step up as far as talent and that is no slight on the teams Vernon has played.
But for now Vernon should just concentrate on its games this weekend at the Ranger Tournament at Wallkill Valley and the rest of the Freedom schedule and see what happens when the H/W/S and states come around.
Either way, this is just the start for the Vikings. At least that is what I have heard.
That’s it for now see you on the sidelines.