By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer

The pictures will last a lifetime. Those snapshots of Egg Harbor Township softball coach Kristi Troster — in just her second year at the helm — consoling her players on the outfield turf at Seton Hall University. The scoreboard awash in zeroes, save for the sixth and ninth innings.
On June 4, the Eagles took on Watchung Hills in the Group 4 state championship game. Freshman Sofia Spatocco stroked an RBI double in the top of the sixth, but the Warriors answered in their half of the sixth, taking advantage of a couple of errors and tying the game on a sacrifice fly. Then, in the bottom of the ninth, Watchung Hills’ Ella Stevinson played the hero’s role, launching a game-winning, walk-off solo home run to left. That gave the Warriors a dramatic 2-1 win, denying EHT its second state championship in the past five seasons.
This spring there was nobody left from that 2017 team that beat North Hunterdon in the state championship game and went 23-1. There were, however, a couple of younger siblings, as shortstop Madison Biddle’s older sister, Emily (then known as MacNeil), and catcher Ryley Martini’s sister, Alyssa, were part of that championship team. Martini graduated a few weeks after this year’s state title game, so she won’t get another chance to win a ring like her older sister, but Biddle, a junior, still has one more shot at it.
“I think we are in a good place right now. I’m excited for next year. I think we have a good chance of going farther. That’s our plan. It’s a good feeling knowing we have the talent to do it, but we have to work hard. In 2017 they worked really hard and practiced a lot to get to where they were, and our job is to do the same,” said Biddle, the Press of Atlantic City Player of the Year who hit .386 with seven home runs, 26 runs and 37 RBIs. “Last year — especially with the seniors we had — we all wanted to play our hearts out because the pandemic ruined our season the year before that. So, last year we came out strong, and this year we came out even stronger.”
High school sports typically are cyclical, but it seems that the EHT softball program is in a great position to maintain the success it began crafting under former coach Mary Dunlap, who skippered the Eagles to a berth in the 2016 state championship game before winning it all in 2017. Troster took over prior to the lost 2020 season due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and in two years she has built an impressive 41-7 record that includes two playoff appearances, a South Jersey Group 4 championship and the title in the inaugural Cape-Atlantic League Tournament this spring.
She believes this team is poised to make more than just one run at a state championship, and she might be right. The roster this spring included just three seniors — Martini at catcher, second baseman Jessie Alkins and center fielder Kayla Dollard — in the starting lineup.
“I feel like we have a balanced program. In our starting lineup this year we had a couple seniors, but also a couple juniors, a couple sophomores and a freshman. Even looking forward, all of my pitchers are sophomores or freshmen,” Troster said. “I think we have two more kids who can throw coming in next year. As long as you have one or two quality pitchers and some supplemental players — if you have a good catcher and shortstop, even if you can’t hit but can play those spots well you’ll be in the lineup. But I have kids who can play those spots and hit very well. It’s a pretty good balance. We have a pretty good recreation program to work with and I’m hoping to get even more involved in that and keep building those community relationships. I don’t want to lose good kids to other places.”
The key to it all is pitcher Madison Dollard, who will be a junior next season. She had a phenomenal sophomore season, establishing herself as one of the best pitchers in the state. She twirled 131 innings and had a 0.75 ERA. She allowed just 14 earned runs all season while striking out 175 batters and walking just 24.
“The covid year, I thought we might have had some of the pieces and could have made a playoff run. I don’t know if we could have done what we were able to do this year. When you have a pitcher like Dollard, if you do anything else well on a given day, you’re going to be in the hunt,” Troster said. “Having a phenomenal pitcher like that who other teams really struggle with, and having a defense that performs like we do, if you can hold other teams to a run or two you don’t even have to have the level of bats we had this year. I hope we continue that because we have a lot of big bats coming back, but when you play defense well and have a pitcher who does her job, it makes it a lot easier to score two or three runs. It’s nice to not have to feel like you have to score 10 runs to win a game. We know if we keep a team to two runs, we’re in very good shape.”
“She’s my best friend and she’s a phenomenal pitcher,” Biddle added. “She made a lot of things happen for us this year with the way she throws. We’re very lucky to know we have that great of a pitcher here at EHT. Pitching means so much, especially when you are in those stressful situations where a single run, or a single hit could win or lose the game. It’s great to know we all have confidence in Dollard and we know she’s going to throw that strike when we need it. We have total confidence in her in those stressful moments.”
EHT has some other pieces to the puzzle that other teams would love to have as well. First baseman Sienna Walterson absolutely mashes the ball (.398/6 HR/47 RBIs) and sophomore Payton Colbert, the Eagles’ third baseman, led the team with a .494 batting average that included 42 hits and 36 RBIs. Kiki Schlemo, another sophomore, hit .364 with 12 runs scored and junior Natalia Stewart hit .390 with 32 runs scored. Spatocco might have been the best freshman in South Jersey, as she hit .362 with nine extra-base hits and 25 RBIs.
“It’s a great feeling to know we had a relatively young team and made it that far. It felt great to come this far with the team we had, especially because we all put in so much work for it. Our seniors did a lot for us, but knowing that we’re only losing a few players and that we have talented players coming up is a great feeling for us. We have talent coming up and we have a lot of girls who got some time this year who play those positions,” Biddle said.
“Most of our kids were in seventh or eighth grade when they were watching that 2017 team. The benefit was a lot of girls came and watched then and got to see what it was like, and a couple of them had siblings on the team. Especially for Biddle, that was very important. Now she wants to win a state championship, too. She wants one for her shelf, and that’s a good thing. You have to want those things,” Troster said. “Being a championship team, there is talent then there is talent with a little bit extra. They have something else, it’s a deeper drive to make it that far. There has to something in you that dictates your ability to go to the next level, and a lot of our kids have that. When times get tough, they get tougher.”
The Eagles aren’t shying away from the lofty expectations that will come around once the 2023 season begins. They, in fact, embrace those expectations. A loss like the one they suffered in this year’s state championship game would crush a lot of programs, but all it did was fan the flames of a team whose competitive fire burns brightly already.
“I’m super excited (for next year). I want to win with this team because we’re all so close. I want to win a state championship with my best friends,” Biddle said. “I think that would be a great accomplishment to say, ‘hey, my high school team won a state championship.’”
Said Troster, “the very next day I got a text message from Biddle and Madison Dollard, and they were like, ‘coach, next year we’re going to win the whole damn thing. We don’t want to feel this way again.’ I’m still not OK with that outcome. As a competitor, that hurt really bad. But I think if you have a couple of players — especially those two girls — who are on that level and that’s their expectation that they are dictating to the rest of the girls — I think we have a pretty good chance. These kids want a state championship, and they want it badly.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays