After claiming the Central Jersey Group III sectional title (pictured here), the 2016 Steinert High softball team went on to win the program’s second state championship. The Spartans return with the same goal this year, knowing they now have a target on them. (File photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

The magic of 2016 still lives within the returning Steinert High varsity softball players, but the real trick will be to put the euphoria on the back burner and replace it with a renewed focus on the task at hand.

The Spartans return a host of regulars from the 2016 NJSIAA Group III championship team, which finished the season on an 11-game winning streak and 27-4 record. Steinert won 20 of its final 21 games en route to the second state title in school history and first under head coach Jean Ruppert.

For some players, it still seems like a dream. For others, it’s a wonderful reality.

“It’s crazy,” senior outfielder Courtney Danser said. “I don’t think it’s totally sunk in yet. Any time I look at my ring, I think ‘Wow, I can’t believe we really did that.’”

“Now that I think about it looking back at it, it’s really hard to do, and we really worked hard last year to get it,” senior catcher Madison Balke said. “It was extremely fun and we focused on just taking it one game at a time and really working hard for each game. But now we’ve just been focusing on working hard and not really thinking about what happened last year.”

And therein lies the mission. The Spartans must maintain the confidence of being a state champion, while fighting over-confidence. Steinert knows it can win, but has to go out and prove itself all over again, as though it has not won anything.

The veterans realize that all too well.

Kaylee Whittaker

“We know we have to put last season behind us and the state championship behind,” said junior shortstop Carli Backlund. “We know if teams score runs against us during games it’s going to make them have more confidence against us, they’re gonna think, ‘Hey we scored against the state champions.’ So we’re putting that behind us, but we still have a lot of confidence in ourselves.”

“Winning it is in the back of my mind of course,” said senior infielder/outfielder/pitcher Morgan Comfort, fresh off winning the Mercer County Renee Keister Award in basketball. “I’ll always have it with me, because there was amazing memories with that team. And it’s just awesome to think about.”

But…

“At the same time we have to go into every game this season like we did last year,” Comfort continued. “We have to get the job done in that single game. I would say that’s one of the reasons why we did so well, because we just focused on the game at hand instead of thinking about the future. We all want the two-peat, but at the same time we’ve got to get the job done. We only lost four seniors, but it’s a new team, anything can happen.”

Courtney Danser

The Spartans graduated key players in Grace Sperrazza and pitcher Kaley Wise, who won the state final against Middletown South.

But they still return an impressive array of talent, and each individual has a burning desire to repeat as state champ.

Balke, who is ticketed for Division I Campbell University in North Carolina, hit .328 with three home runs, nine doubles, 19 RBI and 14 runs scored. She is also among the most hard-nosed catchers in the state, and is ready for the challenge.

“All I’m really thinking about, is we’ve got to work even harder this year to do it again, we’ve got to defend what we have,” Balke said. “I think we’re just as capable to go all the way this year as we did last year. We’ve got a bunch of new players that are really good, and the old crew that’s going to be working hard for us all year. We just have to think about how we were state champs and how everyone will be trying to compete against us even more this year, so we just have to work even harder.”

Comfort, whose versatility provides Ruppert with some nice flexibility, batted .365 with four doubles, a triple, two homers, 19 RBI and 16 runs. She also teamed with Balke to gun down a potential go-ahead run early in the state final.

“We have a target on our backs because of winning, we definitely know that,” Comfort said. “But we have confidence. I always go into the season thinking we’re going to do great things, especially like this year. We know what we’re capable of. We all want to get another state championship, so we’re all really, really excited to start playing.”

Danser, who had two hits, two runs and an RBI against Middletown, hit a whopping 558 with 12 RBI and 22 runs scored. She also flagged down anything in her neighborhood in centerfield.

“We have a crazy amount of potential and can definitely make a second run at it,” Danser said. “But you have to play every game as hard as you can, especially knowing teams want to beat us. That’s definitely a good feeling. It makes every game that much more interesting. You know everyone wants to beat the state champion. We’re definitely still hungry, we also have to know in the back of our heads we’re state champions, we can do this.”

Backlund, whose first two varsity seasons have produced a career average of .355, batted .364 last year with 12 RBI, a homer, two triples, four doubles and nine runs scored. She feels she and her teammates discuss last year for as much a learning tool as for pleasant memories.

“A lot of us talk about it still, and we always think about what we did right and what we did wrong,” she said. “We have to put that into our season now and have a lot of confidence but not go into everything thinking we’re just going to win everything like we did last year. In the back of our head we’re like, ‘We can do it again,’ but we can’t get a big head. We have to be humble about everything. We love playing together and I think we’re more excited to play this season than ever before.”

Other experienced returnees are senior first baseman Kelly Keane (.318, 8 RBI), senior outfielder Cassidy Wood and senior catcher/third baseman Kasey Giordano. Also back is junior outfielder Taylor Hawkes, and sophomore Kaylee Whittaker, who went 7-0 with a 0.42 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 50 innings as a freshman. Whittaker was huge in the state tournament, allowing just three runs and 18 hits while striking out 24 in winning four straight games.

Madison Balke

The pitching also gets a boost from the return of junior Cora Bridgers, who was injured much of last year.

Varsity newcomers looking to make an impact are junior outfielders Megan Brugnoli, Dara Kelly and Olivia Owens; sophomore infielder/outfielder Nicole Cerasi, and freshmen Grace Gaskill (P/OF) and Alex Haley (catcher).

“The players who are back like to support the younger players, and we tell them not to give up on anything,” Balke said. “We try as hard as we can every single practice and we already have that team chemistry going. We had it last year and it helped us.”

Danser agreed, saying, “It helps having so many people back, and we talk to any underclassmen they bring up to make sure they know what’s going on and how much of a big deal this is.”

Out of everything the team learned last year, Danser felt the biggest lesson was that chemistry counts for a lot when it comes to winning. Backlund added that “I learned winning is really fun but I think I learned that never giving up in a game counts for a lot.”

The bottom line is, the Spartans all appear to be on the same page – they are confident but not cocky; they understand that teams will come at them harder than ever and that hard work is the only way to make another run; and they all want to win the Mercer County Tournament, which has eluded the Spartans since 2010.

“We all want to win it again, and we definitely want to get the counties,” Comfort said. “We’re all just extra excited, because most of us have been playing with each other since out of the womb; in travel ball or whatever. So you always look forward to softball season because you look forward to playing with your best friends.

“I’m speaking for the whole team when I say we’re all excited…and excited is, like, an understatement.”