BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Sofia Mouchtaris set off a wild dugout clearing celebration when she drilled a 3-2 pitch into center field scoring teammate Aislinn O'Keefe with the winning run to give Gov. Livingston 5-4 walk-off victory over Summit in the semi-finals of the North Jersey II, Group 3 state tournament in Berkeley Heights.
Mouchtaris game winning hit came in the bottom of the 9th inning and made a winner out of Lady Highlander hurler Jamie Belfer (9-1) who went all 9 while yielding only two earned runs. Belfer also helped her own cause going 3-5 and coming around to score three of the teams five runs. Gov. Livingston’s (16-8) dramatic win sends the Lady Highlanders to Middletown North (24-4) on Tuesday to face the Lady Lions, who are currently ranked fifth in the state.
Gov. Livingston and neighborhood rival Summit met one time earlier in the season with the Lady Highlanders coming away with an 8-2 win. In that game, Gov. Livingston took advantage of four Summit errors to pull away late in the game for the comfortable win. Summit and their ace Kendall Bromfield came into the semifinal matchup with Gov. Livingston playing their best ball of the year, having won their last seven games. Bromfield was coming off her best performance of the year as she notched a five hit, 1-0 shutout of Chatham in the the quarter finals. Gov. Livingston also has been hot, especially at the plate as they have scored 56 runs in their last five games. Coach Mike Roof has used Belfer exclusively on the mound in the playoffs and called on her once again to face the Lady Hilltoppers.
After Belfer put down Summit in the top of the first, she opened the home half of the inning with a base hit off starter Bromfield. Summit then misplayed a ball in the infield and just like they had done in their earlier game, the Lady Highlanders took advantage of some sloppy Summit defense. Janey Morabito and Evan Pallitta picked up RBI’s as they brought in base runners from third base with productive outs, but Bromfiled was able to avoid giving up a big hit. Despite getting only one hit in the inning the Lady Highlanders still managed to push across two first inning runs.
As both Bromfiled and Belfer settled in, they were able to stay out of major trouble by getting big outs when they were most needed. However the Lady Highlanders scored solo runs in the 3rd and 4th innings, upping their lead to 4-1. Julia McKonekey who had two hits in the game, came up with a big RBI single, plating Belfer who had doubled and stole third base.
With Gov. Livingston and Belfer looking like they were in complete control, the game took an abrupt turn in the top of the fifth inning. The middle of the Summit lineup came to life as freshman Kerry Walsh (2-4, 2 2B) hit a booming double to drive in a run and classmate Ava Calabrese (2-4, RBI) followed with a run scoring single. Belfer closed out the inning but the games momentum had clearly shifted to the Lady Hilltoppers as they clawed their way back to within a run, at 4-3.
"Summit has definitely improved especially hitting-wise," said Gov. Livingston head coach Mike Roof. "Tim Simo has done a great job with the kids over there."
As the 6th inning got underway, the crowd had now swelled around the diamond. Both pitchers did not yield a run in the 6th, as Gov. Livingston was now just three outs away from advancing to the finals.
Things got real interesting real fast in the top of the 7th as Summit immediately threatened to not only tie the game but potentially take their first lead of the game. Belfer gave up a walk and then a base hit to put runners on first and second with no outs as the already pumped Summit crowd got even louder. Belfer got an out on a pop up but things took a near disastrous turn for Gov. Livingston on the games next play. After inducing a soft line out for the second out it looked like Belfer and Lady Highlanders were now just an out away from stranding the tying run at second base. However, after the ball was caught, in an ill advised attempt to double up the runner on second base, an errant throw wound up going deep into foul territory in left field. By the time the ball was played back into the infield the runner on second easily scored the tying run but more importantly the runner on first had now made her way to third base. Belfer to her credit dug deep and fanned the next hitter to limit the damage to just one run.
The game remained deadlocked as the stunned Lady Highlanders failed to score in the bottom of the seventh. Again, both Belfer and Bromfield gutted their way through a scoreless 8th inning as the crowd, which now included the entire Highlander varsity baseball team, hung on every pitch.
"The girls said themselves that they were tight and nervous because they knew what was at stake and we haven't played in a sectional final for awhile," said Roof. "Despite being nervous, those first seven innings, I think they were more composed in the extra innings and knew at some point we would be able to break through because we've been pretty consistent at the plate this year."
After Belfer set Summit down in the top of the 9th, the Lady Highlanders clean up hitter Aislinn O’ Keefe (2-5, R) led off the home half of the inning. The Lady Highlanders desperately needed to get the first batter of the inning on base and O’ Keefe came through, punching a base hit into right field. Evan Pallitta then topped a ground ball back to Bromfiled , but O “Keefe was able to advance into scoring position as Bromfield played the ball to first base for the out. Mouchtaris (3-4, RBI ) who had good swings against Bromfield,in her previous three at bats, worked a full count .The junior then came up with the biggest hit of the season as she drove the next pitch into right center. By the time the ball was played to the plate, O’Keefe had already slid in scoring the game's winning run.
Gov. Livingston’s will now turn their attention to state power Middletown North (24-4) and their brilliant junior pitcher Malori Bell (20-4) in the championship game. Middletown North ranked fifth in the state, defeated Cranford 5-1 in their semifinal game as Bell pitched a four hitter while striking out 15 Cougars. Bell has recorded a whopping 285 strike outs in 166 innings pitched this season, including two seven inning games where she whiffed 17 batters. On Saturday, in the quarter finals of the Shore Conference Tournament, Bell struck out 20 batters in the Lady Lions 3-2 10 inning win over Lacey. Her abilities are not limited to the circle as she carries a .442 average and a team leading 32 RBI into the sectional finals. Bell gets plenty of support from Gaby Cerbo (.441,41H 4 HR), Milena Wilton (.471, 48 H, 31 RBI), Cara McNulty (.385,37 H) and (.369,31 H). Last season Middletown North lost to South Plainfield 3-2 in the sectional finals. South Plainfield had defeated Gov. Livingston 2-1 in the semi finals before taking the title against Middletown North. With the addition of Bell this year, a transfer from Keansburg, and a host of returning players, the Lady Lions are a heavy favorite to capture the sectional crown this year. They will also be playing in the semi finals of the prestigious Shore Conference Tournament on Wednesday against No. 2 ranked St. John Vianney, a team that handed the Lady Lions one of their four losses this year.
Gov. Livingston’s chances will rest on the shoulders of four year starter and team leader Jamie Belfer. Belfer will not only have to turn in an outstanding pitching performance, but the Lady Highlanders leading hitter (.557, 49 H) will need to get on base early and often. Belfer, who has gotten more hits (179) in her career than any girl, or boy for that matter, in school history has a knack for disrupting pitchers. Once Belfer reaches, she uses her speed and baseball IQ to move along the base paths. If she can get on and the Lady Highlanders can steal an early run or two, that could key a Gov. Livingston victory. Big boppers junior Janey Morabito ( .394, 26 H, 4 HR) and senior Aislinn O'Keefe (.412, 19 RBI) are certainly capable of knocking Belfer in. Sophomore Evan Pallitta (.308, 4 HR) has shown power at the plate and also a knack for getting the big hit. Defensively the Lady Highlanders anchored by senior short stop Alyssa Lombardi and O’Keefe behind the plate will have to play error free if they hope to pull off the upset.
Gov. Livingston coach Mike Roof could not have asked for anything more from his team this season. Despite getting hit hard by graduation, the Lady Highlanders have reached their primary goal of going deep into both the state and county tournaments. The championship game will be played at Middletown North HS on Tuesday, first pitch 4 p.m.