Liz Afonso kept only 13 players on the CCRI softball roster a season ago. This year, Afonso would have liked to keep it about the same size.
But when tryouts came along, there was just no way she could get it down to that number.
And that’s a good thing.
Afonso and the Lady Knights have 17 players on the roster, and the newfound depth is a testament to the level of talent. With seven players who could see time on the mound, plus a lineup that figures to be potent most of the way through, CCRI is poised to win its third consecutive Region XXI title and make a run at a district championship.
“I would have liked to get it down 13, but because we have seven pitchers that can really pitch, there wasn’t much I could do,” Afonso said. “That’s pretty hard to say no to.”
After a little bit of a slow start to the season, CCRI’s talent was on full display on Sunday. The Lady Knights swept a doubleheader against Northeastern by scores of 18-6 and 18-1.
Those wins came on the heels of a 2-3 start to the year, which happened during the team’s annual trip to Florida. But two of the losses came after the team surrendered late leads, and it was only a matter of time before the Lady Knights got their feet under them.
Now at 4-3, CCRI hopes the slow start to the season is entirely in the past.
“It was just typical error and mental stuff that comes with the first time you take the field,” Afonso said.
Setting the pace on the mound for CCRI is sophomore captain Devin Azulay.
Azulay went 12-3 a year ago with a miniscule .63 earned run average, as she earned All-Region honors.
She’s actually been the tough-luck loser for all three of CCRI’s defeats so far, but Afonso thought she still pitched well during those starts, and hopes are high.
“We’re looking for her to kind of pick up where she left off last year,” Afonso said.
The team’s No. 2 pitcher is yet to be determined, but it will likely be former Cranston West standout Kayla Materese or Warwick sophomore Michelle Sylvestre.
CCRI also has freshman Leslie Peralta, who pitched at Central last year, freshman Katherine Paddock, who pitched at Classical, former Cranston East pitcher Dara Patton and freshman Melanie Iadeluca, who is from Warwick and went to Toll Gate but pitched on the Apponaug team rather than for her high school.
“We’re seven good pitchers deep,” Afonso said. “That’s always good to have.”
Offensively, the Lady Knights are expecting contributions up and down the lineup, but it starts with sophomore captain Ashley Olson.
Olson, the team’s catcher, was a NJCAA third-team All-American last year when she hit .534 with eight home runs and a CCRI record 62 RBI.
This year, CCRI added Olson’s former Coventry High School teammate Katelyn Carroll, a two-time All-State selection at shortstop for the Oakers.
Because of the familiarity between the two, Afonso expects not only the offense to improve, but also the defense up the middle to improve dramatically.
Last year, the team had to move outfielder Jovanissa Perez to shortstop because it lacked a player with true experience there. Perez performed admirably, but now she can move back to her natural position in center field and let Carroll handle the duties at short.
“I made Jovanissa a shortstop last year and there were some things that we kind of fell short on like throw-downs, pickoffs on steals,” Afonso said. “Last year, it took a while for her to get used to it. I really think having Kate Carroll for that position – and her and Ashley having played together for so long – they just key together. I think that is kind of the heart of the infield right there.”
Perez, a Warwick vets grad, will lead the outfield, as she is a returning All-Region player who hit .429 a season ago with 52 steals.
Joining her in the outfield will be Sylvestre – when she’s not pitching – in left, and freshman Leslie Peralta in right. A few others should also get some playing time.
In the infield, sophomore Sarah Siconio will start at first base, backed up by Paddock and freshman Marissa Pelkey.
Former Cranston West standout Isabel MarcAurele and former Pilgrim infielder Kyrie Craig are platooning at second base.
Freshman Catherine Fowler, another former Pilgrim player, is playing third base, as is Azulay when she’s not on the mound.
Iadeluca is also expected to be a key contributor, and she started the season off well by belting an over-the-fence home run on Sunday.
“Offensively, our lineup is pretty strong all the way through, one to nine,” Afonso said. “I think that’s a strength right there.”
The Lady Knights have 53 games on their schedule this year, including a trip to Pennsylvania to play some of the top teams in the area.
In general, Afonso has increased the difficulty of CCRI’s opponents in the hopes that it will better prepare the team to make a deep postseason run.
“It’s something that I had envisioned for a few years, to be able to increase the competition of the schedule,” Afonso said. “So that when we do get to districts, we have that type of experience and we’ve played those types of teams.”
Last season, CCRI lost its first two games at districts to be eliminated, including a 1-0 heartbreaker to Monroe in the second game.
The goal is avoid that same fate.
“I’m looking to repeat as region champions,” Afonso said. “Last year, for districts, we had a heartbreaking loss up in New York. We don’t want that to happen again.”
The Lady Knights will be back in action on Saturday, when they play a doubleheader on the road against the Springfield JV team, beginning at 12 p.m. Their next home games will come in the form of a doubleheader on Sunday against Suffolk Community College.