CLARK, NJ- The Arthur L. Johnson High School Crusaders varsity softball team hit the field hoping to continue their run in the state tournament against the South Plainfield High School Tigers, a battle between teams who won sectional titles the past two seasons (Johnson in 2016 and South Plainfield in 2017, defending Group 3 State Champions).
The third-seeded Crusaders received timely hitting in key innings, featuring big hits from junior Hannah Brogan, senior starting pitcher Nicole Cassano and sophomore Megan Tinger, part of a nine-hit attack to defeat the sixth-seeded Tigers 7-1 in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 2 Quarterfinals Wednesday afternoon in Clark.
The Johnson Crusaders (18-5) advance to the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 2 Semifinals for the fifth time in the past six seasons. They will travel to play at second-seeded Bordentown HS Friday afternoon at 4:00 p.m.
With one out in the bottom of the second inning, the Crusaders went right to work at the plate. After two straight singles, Hannah Brogan swung at a 1-0 pitch and sent the ball to deep right-center field for a triple, scoring senior Lauren Donah and sophomore courtesy runner Lia D’Angelo to give Johnson a 2-0 lead.
“Being able to get a hit in a big spot felt good because it helped out my team and allowed us to score first against a very good team,” Brogan said. “I think the energy our team had today helped us hitting in big spots today.”
It appeared that Johnson scored another run, with junior Bailey Rosenmeier hitting a flyball to center field for a sacrifice fly, scoring Brogan, but she was ruled out after she left third base early before the catch was made.
Cassano took the mound for Johnson and went right to work. She shut down South Plainfield through the first three innings before allowing the first base hit of the game to Holoboski in the top of the fourth inning.
“I knew I couldn’t underestimate [South Plainfield’s] batting and for me, I had to hit all my spots to make sure none of my pitches went down the middle and put a lot of spin on it,” Cassano said of her approach at the plate.
Overall, she struck out seven batters, walked one, scattering seven hits and allowing only one run in the top of the fifth inning.
“Nicole’s confidence and demeanor in the circle started us,” Johnson head coach Chris Di Nucci said. “She pitched great today, our defense behind her was awesome as well. Our catcher [Megan Tinger had] a great effort back there.”
Cassano helped her own cause at the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning. Facing an 0-2 count, she drilled the next pitch from Holoboski to left field, with enough distance to leave the ballpark for a leadoff solo home run, giving her team a 3-0 lead.
“When you play good teams, you’ve got to hit spots and that’s what [Jillian] was doing,” South Plainfield head coach Don Panzarella said.
The hitting coming in various portions of the game for Johnson appeared to break the ice with the pitching clinic on display from both Holoboski and Cassano.
“We were able to get up there from the first inning and were able to make contact,” Cassano said.
South Plainfield battled back in the top of the fifth inning. Sophomore Danielle DeCarlo was hit by a pitch and junior Taylor Santamaria singled to left field to put runners at first and second for the Tigers with no outs and a major opportunity to get back in the game.
Senior Jennifer Grasso singled with two outs, scoring DeCarlo to cut the Johnson lead to 3-1. Outside of the RBI single from Grasso, South Plainfield couldn’t add to it and the game went on.
The bottom of the sixth inning was where Johnson put the game out of reach. Senior Jen Tinger singled and went to second on a sacrifice bunt from senior Mackenzie Purcell. Cassano was intentionally walked and Donah singled on a bloop pop-up to load the bases with two outs.
“As the game went on and progressed, we were able to get more hits,” Cassano said of her team’s approach at the plate.
Megan Tinger stepped up and ahead in the pitching count, took the next pitch and sent it to deep left field for a grand slam, the lead becoming 7-1.
“I knew it was a good pitch and perfect opportunity to help out the team,” Megan Tinger said. “Most importantly, to help in any way possible to continue the seniors’ seasons.”
Cassano retired South Plainfield 1-2-3 in the top of the seventh inning to close the door and secure the win for her team.
“We haven’t been hitting for most of the season and that’s what’s killing us right now,” Panzarella said. “It’s just not hitting the ball. [It is also] when you only score one run a game and you don’t put pressure on a team. That’s what I’m disappointed at right now.”
The Tigers left five runners on base and were retired in order (1-2-3) in the top of the fourth, sixth and seventh innings. The Tigers only got four hits on the afternoon, all singles and no extra base hits and finish their 2018 season with a 17-9 record.