LINDEN, N.J.-  On a chilly and rainy night, the No. 1 ranked Arthur L. Johnson High School Crusaders softball team jumped out to a 5-0 lead over the No. 8 Brearley Bears, but had to hold them off in the end, coming away with the close 6-4 victory Friday night in Linden.

The game was scoreless through the first three innings, both pitchers battling on the mound.

In the top of the fourth inning with two outs, Brearley junior Sydney David appeared to get a base hit after hitting the ball to right field, but Johnson junior Nicole Cassano immediately heaved the ball to senior Stephanie Visconti at first base, narrowly getting the out to end the inning.

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“I knew just the moment it came off the bat that it was a hard-hit ball so I had somewhat of a chance,” Cassano said. “Steph [Visconti] being a great first baseman is what saved me, so without her, I probably wouldn’t have made the play.”

The Crusaders’ bats would respond in a big way in the next half inning.

Following a walk to sophomore Mackenzie Purcell, and a sacrifice bunt by freshman Bailey Rosenmeier, sophomore Jennifer Tinger and senior Gabby Zatko recorded back-to-back RBI doubles to give Johnson a 2-0 lead.

“It’s exciting and I was happy to get the team going,” Tinger said.

Junior Shannon Brogan followed with an RBI double of her own, putting the Crusaders ahead 3-0. She would come in on an error, building Johnson’s lead to 4-0.

After junior Gianna Randazza reached on an error, Visconti would connect for a huge RBI double, capping off the five-run fourth inning.

But Brearley was not to go down without a fight, coming back strong on their bats, despite the elements and an intensifying rain.

Brearley sophomore Michelle Capizzano struck out swinging, but got to first base after a throwing error by freshman catcher Victoria Zatko.

Two batters later, freshman Alyssa Filippone recorded a sacrifice fly to cut the lead to 5-1. A second run came in on an RBI groundout by freshman Hannah Bonaldo, making it 5-2, and then a third came in on an error. .

Then, after another RBI single by Capizzano, the tying run was just 90 feet away. ALJ pitcher Randazza threw the last two outs to escape with the 5-4 lead.

“I definitely think the elements affected both pitchers a little bit,” ALJ head coach Mike Mancino said. “They [Randazza and Capizzano] really battled and put the ball into play. We hurt ourselves with some walks, hit some batters, so that is affected by the weather.”

Johnson tacked on another run, and held off Brearley in the top of the seventh inning to secure the win.

Brearley head coach Amy Efchak says that although the comeback fell short, she feels confident in the team’s chances as they look ahead to May and the state tournament playoffs.

“For us, knowing that we can play with a team as good as Johnson shows us how good we really are,” Efchak said. “So we knew coming into today, we were going to find out how good of a team we really are, so I think we need to clean up our defense a little bit to be able to play with a better team.”

ALJ now prepares for Saturday’s Union County Tournament Semifinals matchup against Westfield High School.  This is the Crusader’s fifth consecutive year in the UCT semifinals.

“We’ve had a tough time during counties the past few years but I think this game actually got us excited and ready to play in the semifinals tomorrow. I’m excited,” Brogan said. “I think we’ll do good.”

The Johnson Crusaders (13-6) advance to the Union County Tournament Semifinals tomorrow afternoon against No. 5 ranked Westfield High School in Linden at 3:00 p.m.

The Brearley Bears (10-3) play at home against Union Catholic High School Monday afternoon at 4:00 p.m.