By John Knebels
Sports Columnist

They look forward to practice. They look forward to games.

They are confident, not cocky. They are focused and determined.

And for the fourth straight year, they are the Catholic Academies League softball champions.

Led by yet another dominating pitching performance by senior Erica Cipolloni, Nazareth Academy blanked Villa Maria Academy 3-0. The victory improved the undefeated Pandas’ record to 19-0 and increased anticipation for the PIAA District 12 tournament that begins for Nazareth on May 28. {{more}}

“This year has been so weird,” said Cipolloni. “Usually there is one team that gives us a really hard time, but that didn’t happen this year. We were able to pretty much dominate the league, and that’s rare.”

Even rarer has been Cipolloni’s emergence as one of the area’s top pitchers.

Although she pitched well while at Nazareth Academy Grade School, the Our Lady of Calvary parishioner entered high school as a second baseman. Her hitting and defense were immediate assets to the Nazareth Academy program, but when star pitcher Amanda Fernandez graduated last year, the Pandas needed someone to step up and carry the torch.

Enter Cipolloni. On her own volition, Cipolloni received intense pitching lessons from New Jersey’s Stacy Jackson. By the start of the season, Cipolloni was ready to switch positions in order to hopefully maintain Nazareth’s winning tradition.

But she was nervous and, she admitted, a bit skeptical.

“I was doing really well in the lessons, but the thought in the back of my mind was wondering how I would do in games,” said Cipolloni, who next year will play at the University of Virginia. “I pitched well (in a scrimmage against Pennsbury), and then just kept getting better.”

And the Pandas kept on winning, especially in the usually tough Catholic Academies League. They averaged double digits against CAL opponents; the closest game other than the championship was also against Villa Maria, a 4-0 victory that included Cipolloni tossing a no-hitter and striking out 19. She also added three hits and two runs batted in; for the season, she has batted over .500 and leads the area in several statistical categories.

Senior third baseman Alex Sawicki acknowledged how fortunate Nazareth is to have such a force on the mound.

“It’s hard to be nervous because Erica is an incredible pitcher,” said Sawicki. “She has a lot of speed and hitters are usually late with their swings, so if they do get a bat on the ball it goes to the right side and sometimes up the middle. I’m always ready if they do get hit my way, but they usually don’t.”

However, on the last out of the game, Sawicki fielded a ground ball and fired a laser to junior first baseman Alex Stermel. Normally that wouldn’t be significant, but in this case, it was.

In the previous three seasons, the last out of the championship was on a groundout to third. Before the game, Sawicki and her teammates had discussed the likelihood of yet another final out being a grounder to third.

Lo and behold …

“I’m not going to lie, I wanted that last out to be a strikeout,” said Cipolloni. “When she hit a grounder to third, I was like, ‘I can’t believe that just happened.'”

Cipolloni and her teammates enjoyed a celebratory chuckle about the coincidental last out.

Later, they reflected on making history. No Nazareth softball team has ever won four straight titles.

“I’ve never been in an athletic program this dominating before,” said Sawicki. “I am beyond elated to be able to say that I left some history at Nazareth along with my fellow seniors and also my team because we really are about the team as a whole.”

John Knebels can be reached at