Newark, N.J. - The historic 2019 season that was filled with a Group 3 state championship and fun memories that will always be remembered by the Middletown North softball team, came to an end in the quarterfinals of the Tournament of Champions on Tuesday.

A hard fought pitchers duel that went into extra innings and saw Middletown North ace Malori Bell rack up a game-high 18 strikeouts, ended with a big blow that the No. 3 seeded Lions couldn’t overcome against No. 6 seed Hightstown.

A grand slam by Hightstown catcher Abby Bell in the ninth inning led to the Rams defeating Middletown North 4-2 and ending the Lions’ season.

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“It’s sad that it had to end this way,” said Middletown North softball coach Chris Hoffman. “The bigger picture is what we did a few days ago against Chatham by bringing home the first state championship in program history and what they have all have done for the (Middletown) community. ”

Malori Bell was nothing but terrific again in the circle for Middletown North.

Coming off two consecutive complete-game shutouts in semifinals and finals of the NJSIAA Group 3 Tournament, Bell continued to keep runs off the board in her last outing in a Middletown North uniform.

The senior picked up a big milestone early in the contest with her sixth strikeout to end the second inning, giving her 400 punch outs for the season.

Bell had nine strikeouts through four scoreless innings of work to begin the contest.

In a two-out jam with runners on first and second in the sixth inning and the game still scoreless, Bell reached back and picked up her 13th strikeout of the game by getting Hightstown’s Jackie Masone swinging to erase the threat.

Bell racked up 14 strikeouts through the first seven innings of the contest.

Like Bell, Hightstown’s ace Ally Bridgman was also brilliant in the circle.

Bridgman held Middletown North to one hit through the first eight innings of the contest. Middletown North only had three runners reach base in the first eight innings.

Both Bell and Bridgman only allowed one hit each going into the ninth inning.

Bridgman got the second hit of the game for Hightstown with a one-out single in the ninth to get the Rams’ bats going.

Bell walked Masone next to put two runners on base and then saw the next batter Morghan Fleisher reach on a fielder's choice to load the bases.

Not panicking one bit, Bell responded by striking out the next batter for the second out of the inning.

Just one out stood between Bell and the Lions getting out of the jam, but up came Abby Bell to the dish and the Hightstown’s Bell got the best of the Middletown North’s Bell.

Jumping on the first pitch, Bell sent a shot over the left field fence for a grand slam to put Hightstown up 4-0.

“I hit my spot, but she was able to get on top of it,” Bell said on giving up the home run. “You have to tip your hat on that situation. She’s a good hitter.”

Down to their last licks and trailing by four runs, the Lions didn’t quit and mounted a rally in the bottom of the ninth.

Cara McNulty started it with a one-out single. Ashley Kofsky followed by drawing a walk to reach base and after Mia Bott got hit by a pitch in the next at-bat, the Lions were set up with bases loaded and one out.

Picking up another RBI this postseason, Ava Turner smacked an RBI single to left field to plate home Middletown North’s first run of the game and cut the deficit to three runs.

An RBI groundout by Lily Richichi in the next at-bat cut the Hightstown lead to 4-2 and put runners on second and third with two outs for Middletown North.

With the tying run on second base, the Lions had a chance with a base hit to tie the game.

Unfortunately for Middletown North, Bridgman stopped the rally right there by striking out Jacey Tammaro and ending the season for the Lions.

“I’m upset obviously that we lost, but I’m extremely blessed to have been a part of a team that made history in our school,” Bell said. “I couldn’t be happier. We’re just happy about the time we spent together and the memories we made this season. We all made a legacy here.”

Bridgman had 11 strikeouts in her complete-game win for the Rams.

Botti was one-for-three at the dish in the loss for Middletown North.

Her game-high 18 strikeouts gives Bell 412 strikeouts for the season.

Middletown North finishes the season with a 27-7 record.

After the game, it wasn’t the loss that had the Lions the saddest, but the fact that it would be the last time they’d all be playing with one another at Middletown North.

A family through and through on and off the field, it was that great family bond that was a huge part in Middletown North’s historic run this spring.

From winning the program’s first state title to bringing a whole community of past and future Middletown North softball players together, the spring of 2019 will never be forgotten at Middletown North.

“I’ve never been a part of a community or culture like this where just being together is just as important as winning a softball game,” Hoffman said. “That starts with their families, our coaching staff and our school administrators. This run this year is going to help us for years to come.”

Follow Steven Bassin on Twitter @SBassin_Sports