Middletown, N.J. - The defending NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 3 champion Middletown North softball team kept its run at winning its second straight sectional title alive by fending off Shore Conference B-North Division rival Colts Neck 4-1 to advance to the sectional semifinals.

“We got big hits when we needed to and made some nice plays in the field,” said Middletown North softball coach Chris Hoffman. “Colts Neck deserves a lot of credit. They’re so much more improved from the first time we played them. You’re not always going to win a game pretty, especially this time of year.”

Defeating Colts Neck 8-0 just this past Saturday in the quarterfinals of the Shore Conference Tournament, the No. 6 seeded Cougars came back to give No. 3 Middletown North all they could handle on Monday afternoon.

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After both Middletown North ace Malori Bell and Colts Neck starter Kaitlyn Pierce threw two scoreless innings to begin the contest, the Cougars got things going off Bell in the third by threatening with runners on first and second with one out.

Bell battled back and erased the Colts Neck threat, bearing down to strike out both Mya Mancini and Kate Mager to end the inning to keep the game scoreless.

“Coach (Hoffman) came out to talk to me and calm me down and it worked,” Bell said. “I was able to work out of it with the two strikeouts.”

After keeping Colts Neck off the board in the top of the third inning, Bell got the Lions on the board in the bottom half of the inning, bashing an RBI single to right center that scored Alyssa Siegler all the way from first base to put Middletown North up 1-0.

“Alyssa (Siegler) is one of the fastest girls on our team. I knew that if I could get a hit in that situation, that she could definitely score,” Bell said.

Middletown North second baseman Cara McNulty added to the Lions’ lead in the next at-bat, roping an RBI single to center field to make it a 2-0 contest.

Colts Neck answered back in the fourth inning, loading the bases up with one out. Julia Terlizzi was able to get Erica Cunningham in from third base on an RBI groundout to cut the deficit to 2-1.

McNulty got Middletown North its two-run lead back in the fifth inning, knocking in her game-high second run of the contest with a Sac-Fly. The senior finished with two hits on the day for Middletown North.

“When I was up there, I just wanted to bring the runners in,” McNulty said about her two-run scoring at-bats. “Put some runs on the board and that’s what happened.”

The Lions scored another run on an error by Colts Neck later in the frame to go up 4-1.

The three-run lead was plenty enough for Ball, who finished the game off strong for Middletown North.

Ball retired the last 11 batters she faced, striking out Gia Zack to end the game for her and Middletown North’s 22nd win of the season.

The senior finished with nine strikeouts on the day, giving her 330 punch outs for the spring. Bell added in a game-high three hits at the plate as well in the win.

“I’ve worked really hard on getting better movement on my pitches and getting the big pitches when I need them,” Bell said. “I’m happy about it. Winning games is what’s most important in the long run.”

Jacey Tammaro went one-for-three at the plate with a run scored in the win for the Lions.

Middletown North is 22-5 on the season and tied its season-high mark of seven wins in a row with back-to-back wins over Colts Neck.

Mancini, Melissa Deissler, Sophia Coppola and Mary Huegel each had a hit in the contest for Colts Neck.

Pierce threw six strong innings in defeat for the Cougars, allowing four runs (three earned) on six hits with a strikeout.

Colts Neck is 14-10 on the year and will finish off the season on Tuesday against Red Bank Regional.

Middletown North, on the other hand, will host Marlboro next in the semifinals of the Shore Conference Tournament on Wednesday and will play No. 2 seed Northern Burlington in the sectional semifinals on Thursday.

In the hunt to win another sectional title and a conference championship, not to mention having a chance to win the Monmouth County Tournament with being in the finals against St. John Vianney, Middletown North is ready to give everything its got this postseason.

“Our girls know what to expect from what we went through last year and how far we went,” Hoffman said. “They’re experienced. We’re not going to go into a game and be nervous. We don’t want to be done yet.”

Follow Steven Bassin on Twitter @SBassin_Sports