The man who helped her learn about the game of softball, Tom Licalsi, was nearby, running the Hoboken Recreation girls' softball program in the town. Nieves figured that the affable Licalsi would be perfect to step in and coach the team.
"I didn't even know they were looking for a coach," said Licalsi, who has been the president of the Hoboken Recreation softball program for the last six years. "I wasn't exactly expecting it."
But Nieves was sold on the idea that Licalsi was her man and she was going to do whatever she could to have her school hire her mentor. So the student dropped Licalsi's name to the school's administration, just as a hint and reminder, just to see if they would buy the idea.
Guess what? They did.
Athletic director Tony Cardino, who has known Licalsi for many years, realized that it would be a perfect fit. He knew that Licalsi would be ideal to take over the program. After all, Licalsi already knew most of the players from coaching and running the rec league. It was natural if Licalsi was interested, which he was.
"I just had to make sure that the girls would be willing to buy into the program," Licalsi said. "I never would have even thought of coaching high school softball. I was perfectly happy with what I was doing, coaching the kids. I never gave this a thought before I was approached. I guess I have to thank Ashley for being like my agent."
So Licalsi was handed the reins to the Sacred Heart softball program last October. He met with the girls soon after getting hired and told them about what he wanted to do. Licalsi wanted to take the girls to a hitting instructor and take batting practice together during the off-season. He wanted them to think, eat, sleep softball. He wanted to make the Sacred Heart softball program into a legitimate one, a competitive team that could even lock horns with some of the Hudson County giants.
"It was just a matter of them following the program and following what I had to say," Licalsi said. "I could sense right away that they believed in me."
So it appeared as if everything was in place when the school secured the services of the dedicated Licalsi, a knowledgeable softball guy who helped to develop the players that have graced the Hoboken High School program over the years.
However, just three weeks after Licalsi was hired, disaster struck. The school's administration announced plans to merge with the Academy of St. Aloysius in Jersey City, forming one school to be called Caritas Academy, beginning in September of 2006.
Here's Licalsi finally getting hired as a high school softball coach and the school is pulling the rug from under him, shutting the doors forever. While Sacred Heart will merge with the Academy of St. Aloysius, the classes will be held in Jersey City. The tiny school on Washington Street in the Mile Square City was to be no more.
"When I first heard that the school was closing, I thought it couldn't be possible," Licalsi said. "I got the call when we were taking the kids to a hitting clinic in Lyndhurst. Just when the kids started to believe in what I wanted to do, the school was closing. It was very ironic."
Licalsi didn't let the bad news hinder his spirit or his determination. He was going to make the Zephyrs - yes, that is Sacred Heart's nickname - into winners this season. If anything, they were going to go out as winners. "It was a little tough, but we wanted to go out with a bang," Licalsi said. "I was now more concerned than anything about going out as a winner. I had to make them become a better team."
Licalsi knew that he was inheriting some talented players, like catcher Nieves, who Licalsi calls "my coach on the field."
"She's been so wonderful," Licalsi said. "She handles the pitches. I don't call pitches. She does everything." The pitcher is junior Grace Piscitelli, who Licalsi said that he constantly has meetings of the mind with.
"We're always battling with each other," Licalsi said. "But we love each other. Basically, we're on the same page, but she knows how to push my buttons."
Junior shortstop Ashley Centano was a fixture in the program. Sophomore third baseman Alyssa Flynn was a steady hitter. So the talent was there. If it was going to be the last year for Sacred Heart, then it was going to be a year to remember.
Sure enough, it has turned out to be exactly that. The Zephyrs have won 10 of 11 games thus far and sit atop the North Jersey Catholic Girls League standings. They are dominating their opposition, with their lone loss coming at the hands of Hudson County's premier team, North Bergen.
Piscitelli has been brilliant on the mound, winning 10 games with a 1.37 earned run average and with 54 strikeouts in 56 innings. Centano is batting .535 with 20 stolen bases. Flynn is batting .532 with four homers and 27 RBI. In the past week alone, Flynn has delivered nine hits in 12 at-bats, with three homers and 15 RBI.
And the main reason why Licalsi is the head coach, catcher Nieves, is the leader of the pack, batting .611 with two homers and 21 RBI.
"She's the leader," Licalsi said of Nieves. "She's like Reggie Jackson. She's the straw who stirs the drink." Other key performers have been freshman second baseman Courtney Lavergne, junior first baseman Jacklyn Morin, sophomore centerfielder Marielle Rana, junior left fielder Gina Pardo and senior right fielder Jaslyn Castro.
Licalsi said that he learned from his experiences dealing with Hoboken High School coaches and friends like baseball coach Buddy Matthews and softball coach Carmine Ronga that it's good to set goals.
"Carmine has been a tremendous help to me after I took this job," Licalsi said. "If you set goals and then you get there, it's even better. I feel that's the way you have to go. We set goals with this team that we wanted to win the league."
They're well on the way, in the final go-round.
There is already a sense of sadness with this final season before the merger. Rana and Pardo have already indicated that they will not go to Caritas Academy, choosing to go to Cliffside Park High School, where they reside. So there is a final countdown with the seniors and the players that have decided not to return.
There's also no guarantee that the rookie coach will be asked to coach the softball team at the new school. The coach at St. Aloysius, Rick Needham, has been at the school for over a decade and just recently won his 100th career game.
"I hope I'm able to continue," Licalsi said. "I didn't know I would enjoy it this much. Things fell right for me. We've accomplished so much this year. We'll see what happens about next year."
Licalsi said that he learned in the off-season to just enjoy each day as it passes. His beloved cousin, Mike Marotta, suffered a brain aneurysm before the season and he's dedicating the season to him. So Licalsi won't worry about what's going to happen next year, just the remainder of this year, the final year of softball at Sacred Heart.
"It is a little ironic that all of this is happening," Licalsi said. "We're just enjoying it for as long as possible." Right through the end of this amazing final season.
- Jim Hague