By Ricki Demarest
Softball prodigy and high school senior Jaclyn Carifi has a voracious appetite for perfection on and off the field. From the time the Parsippany resident was seven years old, her ever-unfolding love affair with the game has won her accolades and awards. This year her GPA floats above straight ‘A’s at 4.2. She manages a punishing daily schedule that includes school, sports practices, and Advanced Placement class homework. Carifi takes an active role in projects for her church’s youth group as well as at least ten school clubs and other associations. She has also logged thousands of travel team miles with her mother Julie, playing in games and tournaments with her NJ Heist 18u Gold travel organization. Carifi recently signed an official letter of intent to play her favorite sport as a student at The College of New Jersey with an early decision acceptance.
A planner, phone calendar and family support all help keep Carifi to her hectic schedule. However, her path to college softball has been one of hard work, mental toughness and a 100 per cent commitment to doing the right thing, no matter what the situation.
Although it’s easy to grasp that Jaclyn Carifi is special simply by watching her play softball, the game also allows a glimpse into her character. She has repeatedly chosen the less popular or less glamorous path in favor of the one that clears her conscience. As a sophomore and Captain of Parsippany Hills’ Varsity Vikings squad, she went up against her own teammates. “During softball it snowed, and the weather was bad, and we had to practice in the gym,” Carifi explained recently. “Half of it (softball) is receiving fly balls from the dirt and it’s different from the gym floor.” Their new coach proposed a solution. “The coach said to dress warm next practice and we could shovel. Everybody else was complaining and the other kids tried to get her fired for doing it,” Carifi explained. “The AD (Athletic Director) called me down and said, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘This is ridiculous…she’s actually a really good coach.” Carifi saw the situation in practical terms. “What’s the difference whether I shovel at home or at school?” she said.
Heist teammate and friend Samantha Burggraf recounted how Carifi buoyed her team’s spirits after a tournament loss. “Our punishment…was…running. As we all ran, drenched in sweat, there was a voice that encouraged us…Of course, that voice belonged to Jaclyn. Instead of running ahead, which she could have easily done, or ignoring her suffering teammates, she ran alongside us, motivating and reassuring us…”
Carifi’s softball career began as she watched her father James pitch to her brother. “My son was a big wrestler,” James recently recounted. “We wanted him to try baseball. My daughter was outside retrieving the balls and my son wanted no part of it.” When James saw that Jaclyn was really enjoying herself, he said, “I thought we may have something here!” Justin Carifi, now 19, would go on to set the record for wrestling wins at Parsippany Hills High School. Jaclyn, meanwhile, was destined for greatness on the softball diamond. Her mother Julie reached out to the Par-Troy West Little League organization to ask if her daughter could start playing. She would remain in the Little League system until she aged out at 12 years old, always playing with older kids and facing them on the other team. “What I remember most about Jaclyn as a little girl is at such an early age, she grasped the concept that you have to earn things in life and that things are not just handed to you,” James said. A personal anecdote he shared reinforced the fact that Jaclyn’s never say die attitude is all her own. “She refuses to give up. We have a little game ever since an early age – if I touched her, she had to touch me last. I will say ‘I touched you last,’ and even at a tournament she will run back to touch me last,” he laughed. “She refuses to give up.”
An all-around player who was shrewd and talented beyond her years, by middle school Carifi’s pitching skills wiped out larger adversaries. She said recently that one of her “stand out” memories was when she pitched a “perfect game” of 18 strikeouts, no walks and 69 pitches as a 10-year-old Par-Troy West player. In sixth grade, Carifi broke the Brooklawn Middle School Record for the most amounts of strikeouts in a game. By eight grade she had broken her own strikeout record and shattered every other Brooklawn school softball record. The small but precocious player was also playing on club teams. She started with the NJ Pride organization’s 10u team. At 11 and 12 she played for the Central Jersey Lightning, then moved on to her current club, the NJ Heist.
Elite athletes such as Jaclyn Carifi live a different lifestyle than other teenagers. She practices for softball all year long. “We are constantly in the car driving to and from tournaments that are hours away or flying to tournaments in Florida and Colorado,” Julie explained. “I have had so many opportunities to influence Jaclyn’s life because we have spent so much time together and forged an unbreakable bond. We discuss everything. Sex, drugs, nothing’s forbidden.” Julie organized her work schedule so she would be able to be at every lesson, practice and game. “I make sure that I never miss a game or activity,” Julie emphasized.
Julie prefers to demonstrate the way to behave rather than lecture about it. “I’m not going to do something if I can’t give a hundred percent. If you committed to do something you’re going to follow through ‘til the end because someone’s counting on you,” she explained. Members of the Hildale Park Presbyterian Church in Cedar Knolls, Carifi and her family go out of their way to help those in need at every Christmas. “My family helps one family, Carifi related. “We help them decorate…make a meal and…. take the tree down.” Carifi bakes and sells treats and Christmas trees with the youth group during the church’s Holiday Bazaar.
In school, Carifi takes the family tradition of community service forward. She formed that habit back in third grade, organizing a Pajama Drive as a member of the Kiwanis K Kids Club at Littleton Elementary School. As a member of the National Honor Society, she now tutors other students after school on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s. Carifi said she knows a few tricks since she has taken six math classes throughout high school. Throughout the year, she is involved with fundraising projects and clean ups for Key Club, National Business Honors Society, Spanish Honors Society, FBLA, DECA, Yearbook Club, Games with Friends where she works with special needs kids, and Peer Buddies.
The Parsippany PAL sponsors Games with Friends. Physical therapist and GWF organizer Barbara Miller called Carifi a part of a unique community, mentioning that Carifi followed in brother Justin’s footsteps. Spending time with special needs children for seven years now, “she’s very kind and hardworking. Some of the children are autistic and nonverbal. They have difficulty transitioning and act out,” Miller explained, “and I could ask Jackie to work with one of those children and she would make them feel comfortable and participate in the group.” Carifi, she said, is outgoing and positive and enjoys taking on challenges.
Longtime friend and fellow Spanish Honors Society member Jason Reid summed Carifi up as “the most caring person I know.” Spanish Honors Society members spend a lot of time fundraising for communities in countries like Guatemala when they have been destroyed by natural disasters. Reid explained why he thought Carifi was the ideal friend. “She has the ability to light up the room with a simple ‘knock knock’ joke, an original joke, or by just smiling,” he said. “My sophomore year, when I was going through a rough time with the passing of my dog, Jaclyn would stay awake talking to me for hours on end late at night when she could be getting sleep just to keep my mind off my dog. If that isn’t a sign of a true friend, then I don’t know what is.”
Both Julie and James have been able to encourage their daughter while keeping her humble. “We will be sitting with people and if she gets a triple people will say ‘Why aren’t you screaming?’” Julie said. “People just want praise and validation for everything. You don’t get a trophy because you showed up, you get a trophy if you’re outstanding.”
“I let her know that everything she does has consequences,” Julie continued. When it was time to discuss drinking and driving, for example, Julie drove Jaclyn over to the local police station. Behind the building was a vehicle that had been destroyed by a drunk driver. No more words were needed.
Entrance to Parsippany Hills High School did not slow Carifi’s upward softball trajectory. She was named to the Varsity squad her freshman year. The Daily Record named her to the 1st Team All-Conference Northwest Jersey Division and All-Academic Team her Freshman year. She stayed on that list her Sophomore year. Meanwhile, she was named Captain for the Vikings Varsity squad. Last year, the Daily Record awarded her 1st Team All-Conference National Division and to their All-Academic Team. This spring, Carifi will represent Parsippany Hills High School at the NJSIAA National Girls and Women in Sports Awards. The ceremony is a statewide day of celebration for girls and women in sports where they give awards to outstanding high school and college/university female athletes. To help lift her overall athletic prowess, Carifi added volleyball and basketball to sports. “Both sports require working out in the weight room during school and they focused more on the conditioning, strength and agility aspects. I use different muscles than I use during softball which makes me less prone to injuries and helped my endurance. I like playing three different sports because I got to play with a lot of different girls and experience different coaching styles,” she said.
This spring, Carifi plans to enjoy her Prom. She wants to beat her own record of 100 hits for the Vikings and reach 150 before leaving school. At graduation, James, a former Board of Education member for the Parsippany Troy Hills School District will hand over her diploma. Carifi, however, will NOT have to worry about getting a college acceptance in the mail. “Once I got my acceptance letter to The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), all of the pressure I put on myself and the anxiety went away.” Carifi said with relief. “As soon as I visited TCNJ, I knew that it was the perfect fit for me. I wanted a school that was academically challenging, not too large or too far away and that had a competitive softball program.”
The TCNJ acceptance came, in part, because of the Heist’s outstanding performance last summer at the Colorado Sparkler College Showcase in Westminster, Colorado. Their second-place finish was another high point for Carifi. NJ Heist President and Head Coach Sergio Rodriguez said that then, as always, the girl who wears #1 led by example and contributed at crunch time. “She is as cool as the other side of the pillow,” Rodriguez stated. “In fact, I believe that’s one of her greater strengths. She never changes her approach regardless of the situation.”
Rodriguez noted that his program places rigorous emphasis on loyalty and commitment to improvement, as well as scholastic achievement. “This year alone we have Babson, TCNJ and NYU,” as college placements for players, “and we have Brown, MIT and Columbia in the mix for our kids for next year.” he said.
Carifi heads to TCNJ in August. She said she will miss time with the parents who have brought so much to her game and her attitude. She will also miss playing with the girls she has spent the past seasons with on school and club teams. Planning to major in Math and minor in Actuarial Sciences, she is looking forward relentlessly. “I wanted a school that was academically challenging. I want to start on the (softball) team as a Freshman.”
Her longtime fan and former third grade teacher Carol Tiesi predicted that Carifi will be “a great success.” Recalling the little girl who entered her classroom each day with a smile, Tiesi said simply “I am just so happy for her family.”