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Bella Truelove was more than just surprised at her 2023 season.
“Honestly,” she said, “It just blows my mind.”
With good reason.
In her mind-blowing sophomore season for the Mercer County Community College softball team, Truelove finished second in NJCAA Division II in RBIs (98), fifth in home runs (28), seventh in slugging percentage (1.083), eighth in total bases (182), 10th in sacrifice flies (5), 18th in hits (85), 19th in batting average (.506) and 30th in on-base percentage (.549).
She was a first-team All-Region 19 selection, the Region 19 Player of the Year and, for the first time in Ryan Zegarski’s 20 years as head coach, a first-team All-American.
Asked if it was the greatest offensive season he has seen as Vikings coach, Zegarski didn’t hesitate.
“Yes,” was his simple answer.
“You can’t put it into words,” the coach added. “It’s the best home run and RBI total in the last 30-plus years in the region, and they’re both Mercer records as far as I know.”
It’s not like Truelove came out of nowhere. In three years at Steinert she collected 21 home runs and 90 RBIs. In her freshman year at Mercer the corner outfielder hit .354 with 40 hits, 11 home runs, 13 doubles and 43 RBIs.
In between Steinert and MCCC, there was a three-month stay at Georgian Court, which didn’t quite work out.
“I just didn’t enjoy it,” Truelove said. “I came home for winter break, my parents wanted me to stick it out. I thought maybe I’d stick it out for spring. But right after Christmas I said, ‘I can’t, I need to transfer.’ I knew it would be too quick to go to another (four-year school), so I talked to Ryan and it happened pretty quick. Literally, one day, it was in and out.”
That was definitely a productive day for Zegarski and his program.
About the only thing wrong with her freshman year was how it paled in comparison to her sophomore season.
“I was perfectly fine with it,” she said. “But comparing it to this year it just seemed crazy to me.”
Zegarski noted that, “She started off last year hot and then went into a pretty nice funk and we couldn’t get her out of it. This year she was hot the whole year. We had one week with two or three doubleheaders where she struggled a little bit but got herself out of it.”
Immediately after the season, Truelove worked on improving herself.
“In the summer we started to do some tee work with her and some soft toss,” Zegarski said. “We spent some time just kind of correcting and making her realize some things she could do better with her hands. She did those drills over and over with us and on her own. She came in the fall and showed improvement, keeping her swing corrected and using the whole field more.”
Truelove also began working on her hitting with a private coach, Hamilton Square resident Ryan Bischoff.
“It was just a different experience, I’d never gone to a hitting coach that does the things he does,” Bella said. “I started going once a week. It was a lot of weighted bats, hitting smaller balls. Other days just constant reps. I recorded myself hitting, and he was just always so positive in seeing what I do. It was a different change of pace. It helped me with not dropping my arm, which I did as a freshman.”
Regular trips to the weightroom helped Truelove increase her strength, which led to more power.
“When I started with my hitting coach, our goal was 20 home runs,” she said. “I hit that so quickly, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I was actually in shock. And it just kept going and going. I thought I did well last year, but seeing my stats this year and how much they changed after all the work I put in, it’s kind of crazy.”
Zegarski felt that Truelove’s season was amazing for two reasons – the players she trailed in the national statistics all had 30 to 50 more at-bats than her since they played at warm weather schools; and Bella was rarely going to get a good pitch to hit.
“The girl she finished behind in RBIs (Louisburg’s Brianna Tucker, 107 RBIs) had over 30 more at-bats than her,” the coach said. “And you gotta remember everybody knows who she is. She’s not getting that cookie down the middle of the plate. Every pitch to her is ultra-competitive. She saw a lot of change-ups, a lot of off-speed stuff. A lot of balls above her hands or completely in. Every good pitch she got to hit, she hit.
“She learned how to take her walks in certain spots and not swing at other pitches to get herself out. It was a maturation process from year one to two, on how to learn how to fail. You deal with it. If you can’t learn how to fail, you’re gonna have trouble. She learned how to fail better, she trusted her teammates more to pick her up. She took her walks and let people behind her pick her up this year.”
The result was Mercer’s first All-American since Kaley Wise earned third-team honors in 2018. Truelove was surprised to get that honor and Player of the Year, figuring it usually went to a player on the Region 19 champion, which was Delaware Tech.
“When my dad told me, ‘You’re All American,’ I flipped out,” Truelove said. “All the girls on there are from the south or West Coast, and then there’s just me.”
Truelove’s next stop will be Kean University, where former MCCC and Trenton State (now The College of New Jersey) standout Margie Acker has created a perennial New Jersey Athletic Conference powerhouse.
“There’s a lot of Mercer girls who have gone to Kean and I just wanted to do my last two years somewhere local,” she said. “I plan on going somewhere far away for whatever I do afterwards. I’m still figuring that out. Their coach was super nice, it was so welcoming. On Christmas Eve I texted her that I’d love to come.”
And that’s probably a Christmas present that coach Acker can’t wait to unwrap next spring.
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