ATHLETE OF THE WEEK

McNair’s Villanueva enjoys day to remember in phenomenal sophomore year

ATHLETE OF THE WEEK
McNair Academic sophomore pitcher Mariah Villanueva

The numbers just flew off the sports pages. They were almost too unbelievable to be actually true.
But McNair Academic sophomore softball pitcher Mariah Villanueva had the game of any lifetime last week, when the Cougars upended Plainfield, 14-12.
In that game alone, Villanueva went 5-for-5 with four doubles and collected seven RBI. That’s no misprint.
“I didn’t really expect to go 5-for-5,” Villanueva said. “I just wanted to have productive at-bats and maybe move the runners along.”
It doesn’t stop there. Villanueva had two hits and four RBI in a win over Harrison, a game where she fanned 17 batters. She also had two hits and three RBI against Newark Central, drove in three runs against Marist and drove in three in a loss to Union City.
You’re getting the picture now. This young lady is a run-producing machine.
For the season, Villanueva is now hitting .667 with seven doubles, one homer and get this – 28 RBI in just nine games.
That’s not just moving runners along. That’s sending them home in record-setting proportions.
McNair Academic has had its share of standout sluggers over years, players like Sarah Beckner and Sarah Kreutz and Kim Cochlan and Natalia Estremera. All of those former Cougars had All-County seasons. None put up numbers like the way Villanueva has done so far this season.
“I’ve never had anyone do anything like this so early in the season,” said veteran McNair head softball coach Vahon McCullers. “She’s hitting line drive after line drive. Everything she hits is a frozen rope. I’ve seen a lot of those other players in their prime, but there’s never been anything like this.”
For her efforts, Villanueva has been selected The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Villanueva, whose sister Mya is also a standout player with the Cougars, said that she just started hitting the ball harder since the beginning of the season.
“I just keep my eye on the ball and try to hit it hard,” Villanueva said. “I’ve been hitting the gaps, both in right field and left.”
It helps that Villanueva’s father has been working with his daughters. They also have been receiving private hitting lessons from a coach named Phil Delgado in Fairfield.
After the lessons, Villanueva said that she felt like a better hitter.
“I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself,” Villanueva said. “I just wanted to let the game come to me. I think the competitiveness of the games has helped me become a better hitter.”
McCullers is not surprised one iota by his sophomore slugger’s incredible surge.
“Her softball IQ is tremendous,” McCullers said. “She doesn’t get frazzled easily and is always sharp. She’s always thinking ahead. She’s also so very positive. She never gets down and the rest of the team just follows along. She just takes charge.”
That idea is remarkable for someone who is just a sophomore.
“I think Mariah is showing more poise this year,” McCullers said. “She’s definitely the leader. She’s not overly rah-rah, but she gets her point across. But she has a lot of poise, a lot of moxie. With her sister, it’s like having double trouble. They’re both very good players.”
But only one has 28 RBI in nine games, of which the Cougars own a 6-3 record.
“She has so much going for her,” McCullers said. “I really think she can be one of the best players in this area. I think she can play any position on the field if she wanted to.”
McCullers was asked why Villanueva has shown so much improvement since last year.
“I think she used to pull her head up when hitting the ball,” McCullers said. “Now, she’s keeping her head down, her chin down and seeing the ball better. The better teams don’t even try to challenge her. They pitch her more on the outside now, because they’re beginning to know who she is.”
Getting a county-wide Athlete of the Week feature is going to help that recognition immensely.
“It’s definitely a motivator for me,” Villanueva said. “I see now what I’m capable of and it’s very exciting. I want to keep getting all these hits and all these RBI. It’s a big confidence booster.”
But Villanueva is not going to dwell on her early season success too much.
“I’m not going to let this go to my head,” Villanueva said. “I have to keep improving. I just want to keep this going.”
And it’s safe to say that Villanueva will always fondly recall the game where she had five hits, four doubles and seven RBI. Who wouldn’t?
“It was a very exciting day for me and my teammates,” Villanueva said. “Of course, it’s a day I’ll always remember.” – Jim Hague.

Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.

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