CLARK, NJ – Arthur L. Johnson High School senior Nicole Cassano took the mound, seeking her first win of the season. At times, Cranford was able to scratch across a few runs to put Johnson in an early deficit before ALJ took it back in a 4-2 win on Thursday afternoon .
Cranford got an RBI single from freshman Elizabeth McCaffery to take a 1-0 lead and a sacrifice fly from senior pitcher Brenna Dolan to make it 2-0 Cougars. She managed to record the last outs of those innings, escaping with no further damage. For Cassano, overcoming nerves became part of the battle to get the game to her team’s lineup.
“I knew I had to keep calm and not let those two runs get to my head because if I did that, the whole game would’ve been over by the next inning,” Cassano said of getting through the early runs.
Her team came through in major fashion with a three-run third inning, where Johnson dug out of their early deficit and took the lead for good. The Crusaders added another run in the bottom of the fourth inning which led to the Cougars defeat.
With senior Mackenzie Purcell on first base following a single, Cassano laced a deep double to center field for an RBI double, scoring Purcell and cutting the deficit down to 2-1. Her hit would only be the start of a rally that inning. Junior Victoria Zatko followed with a single to left field, scoring Cassano to tie the game at 2-2.
“I was just looking for my pitch,” Zatko said. “I knew I needed to get [this run] in because if we didn’t, we would’ve been down the rest of the game. I saw my pitch, I swung at it and knew at that moment I was going to rip it.”
Zatko’s hit was the third straight of the inning for Johnson, as they battled back through offense, making up after coming up empty with a major chance to score in the bottom of the first inning, where they loaded the bases, but couldn’t bring anyone home.
“We talk about staying composed [and] winning the at-bat, winning the pitch and not letting the game get to you. We took it one at bat at a time, we were able to string some hits together and our girls came through when we needed them to knock some runs in. That’s the difference in most games, timely hitting," Johnson head coach Chris Di Nucci said.
Two batters later, sophomore Megan Tinger stepped in, looking to make up for a flyout in the bottom of the first inning with the bases loaded. She drilled a double to right-center field, scoring Zatko to give Johnson a 3-2 lead. She came into the game with only one hit, coming in the season opener back on March 31. She went 2-for-3 with the go-ahead RBI double.
“It felt a little better because I was in a slump, so that hit sort of made the spark [needed to complete the third-inning rally],” Tinger said.
The Crusaders would add another run in the bottom of the fourth inning and Cassano was able to take care of the rest of the game on the mound. After allowing a leadoff double in the top of the fourth inning, she recorded three straight outs to maintain her team’s lead.
In the fifth inning, Cranford’s Erin Schwedtfeger reached on an error and was at second base, but Johnson shut down Cranford and left the potential tying run at the plate, a strikeout and groundout ending the inning. As the game shifted to the top of the sixth inning, Cranford had the tying run at the plate again, but Cassano ensured they wouldn’t get close.
She recorded back-to-back strikeouts, getting Cranford’s Julianna Lefano swinging and Alex Pachkowski looking to power her team to the win.
“My curveball was working really good when they were fouling it off,” Cassano said of her pitch selection. “Then, I would switch it to the fastball inside and they couldn’t catch up.”
Overall, Cassano pitched a complete game, recording six strikeouts and no walks, scattering eight hits and allowing two runs in the win for her team.
“Nicole pitched well today. She settled in after the initial couple of runs. She is a quality starter, and knows what it takes to get the job done. We have all the confidence in the world in her and she pitched very well in the game today," said Di Nucci. "Although we made a few early mistakes in the field we played some solid defense behind her and we were able to come out on top. That’s a good Cranford team and we are glad to come out with the win."
The Johnson Crusaders (2-2) will remain home for a regular season game against Immaculata HS (Somerville) Friday afternoon at 4:00 p.m.
The Cranford Cougars (2-3) will travel for a road game at Dayton HS Saturday afternoon at 2:00 p.m.