UNION, NJ - In the pitching duel between Chatham's Anna Lengner and Middletown North's Malori Bell, it was going to come down to the team that found a way to push across the first run.
For Middletown North, it was a perfectly placed bunt by No. 9 batter Alyssa Sigler leading off the bottom of the fifth that did it, sparking a four-run rally that sent the Lions past Chatham, 5-0, for the Group 3 state softball championship on Sunday at Kean University.
"It's a simple game when the winning rally starts with a bunt," Chatham coach Brian Figueiredo said. "They built it from there. They got a couple big hits when they needed it."
Right-hander Lengner came into the game with a 23-inning state tournament scoreless streak in three shutout wins. And she extended that run to 27 innings with four scoreless innings against Middletown North (27-6) in the Group 3 final. But her counterpart, Bell, was even better, limiting Chatham to just three hits - a double and a single by Sara Iuzzolino and a spinning hit in front of the plate by Kayla Friedman.
"We were realistic in our plan," Figueiredo said. "We probably weren't going to score 10 runs here today. We talked about making sure we kept a zero on the defensive end and in the last three innings have a chance to win the game. And that's what we did. We showed up here wanting to have a chance to win in the last three innings. Credit to them (Middletown North), that's a great team over there."
Chatham (19-9) had a chance to take the lead in the fifth when Iuzzolino led off with a double to left field, the first hit of the game for the Cougars. But she was stranded at third base.
In the fourth inning, Jocelyn Spencer had walked, been sacrificed to second and moved to third on a wild pitch before Bell pitched out of it.
"We started getting some baserunners on with walks and moving them over," Figueiredo said. "I'll be honest with you, we've had a pretty magical run here. You start to think that the magic is going to find a way."
Lengner hit two of the hardest-hit balls in the game, but both were caught. She hit a drive to deep center in the third and pulled a ball that was caught in front of the wall by Sigler in the sixth.
"We believed in each other so much and we knew what we could do even if other people didn't think we could after we lost in the counties," Lengner said. "We knew we were better than that. We just used that attitude to propel us through each game. We made a historic run. No other Chatham team has gone this far and I think that's quite an accomplishment. I always believed we could get as far as we wanted to. You always have to take a positive attitude into each game."
The decisive hit in the game was Ashley Kofsky's double off the wall in the fifth inning that gave Middletown North a 2-0 lead
Second baseman Iuzzolino hit the ball hard in each of her three at-bats, lining to the shortstop in the second inning, doubling to left in the fifth and lining a single to right in the seventh (see the video below). She also made a long run to catch a foul pop in the second.
"You would never imagine we'd end up here," Figueiredo said. "If you told us the season was going to end on June 2nd at Kean, everyone would have signed up for it."