There's a new Queen of the Hill in South Jersey softball, and it might raise a few eyebrows.
St. Joseph, from the smaller-school Cape-Atlantic League, has climbed to the top of The Inquirer's top-10 rankings on the strength of its performance in the Hammonton Invitational last weekend as well as its overall record.
The Wildcats (17-1), whose enrollment is about 500, won the tourney by defeating Washington Township, 1-0, on Saturday. Township's 3,000 students make it the largest school in the area.
To get to the championship game, the small Hammonton school defeated Camden Catholic, 3-0, Sterling, 12-1, and Bordentown, 2-0. Camden Catholic is in the large-school Olympic Conference, as is Township. However, Township is in the toughest division, the American.
"Who should be No. 1 now? We should," St. Joseph coach Candi Dean said. "We have been underrated the entire season. We don't get respect because we're a small school.
"From the whole Hammonton performance and the final, we showed what we are made of, and we are consistent."
Dean countered the arguments against her team's being ranked the best in South Jersey. First is the schedule. Critics claim that the Wildcats don't play many tough teams. However, the Cape-Atlantic requires St. Joseph, the defending National Division 2 champ, to play everyone in its group and the division twice. That takes up 18 of the maximum 25 games that are permitted.
Consequently, Dean enters her teams in tournaments where the big schools play, such as the one at Overbrook and the Hammonton Invitational. She also schedules competitive teams such as St. John Vianney.
Then there is the complaint that St. Joseph is a parochial school, so it can draw players from outside its community.
"Nicole Pagano and Sammi DiPompo are from St. Joseph's elementary school," Dean said of two of her stars. "About 25 percent of our [starters] come from other local Catholic schools. We have one or two from local public schools. So that argument doesn't hold water with me."
A sophomore, Pagano was named the Hammonton tournament's most valuable player after she finished with four wins, including three shutouts, and 63 strikeouts.
DiPompo is a senior shortstop who holds school records in RBIs (115), runs (114), hits (137), and extra-base hits (72).
Lenape's take. Lenape coach Mike Medrick pointed out that the Wildcats have three good pitchers in Pagano, DiPompo and junior Charlie Adomanis. That's in addition to good hitting and defense.
"St. Joe is a very good team and probably deserves to be number one," said Medrick, whose Indians (15-2), ranked No. 2 by The Inquirer, have their first shot at an outright American Division title since 1998.
Minutemaids struggling. Lenape's 6-5 win over Township in an important American Division game Monday was just what the Indians needed. For No. 3 Township (14-4), the loss showed coach Tracy Burkhart that she has work to do with her team, which committed eight errors.
"There's still a Group Four championship out there and we're going to go after it," Burkhart said. "So it's my job to pick them back up."