MONTCLAIR-- Endurance and mental toughness might be the most important traits for a team to possess in the postseason, and so far the South Plainfield High School softball team has shown they have those qualities in spade. Today, it helped them earn a spot in the state championships.

The Lady Tigers (26-4) matched up against a surging Old Tappan squad in Montclair for the Group 3 semifinals. The back-to-back scheduling of the state tournament seemed to have sapped some energy out of South Plainfield early on in the game, but sturdy defense and some clutch hits helped the Lady Tigers recover and earn a 3-2 victory over the Golden Knights, which booked the South Plainfield's first ticket to a group final since 2005.

“They’re playing great ball right now,” said South Plainfield head coach Don Panzarella after the game.

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“We were a little sluggish coming out to start, but the whole year we’ve been battling. “They looked a little tired today coming in from yesterday’s big (sectional title win over Middletown North). Emotionally it took a lot out of them… but we came through.”

The pitching of Katherine Vill has been a consistent source of success for the Lady Tigers this season, and even though she had some trouble in the opening inning, the senior pitcher ended up coming through again. 

A lead-off triple by Julie Rodriguez and an RBI from Sinead Albelli put the Golden Knights up 1-0 with two outs remaining in the bottom of the first inning. It didn’t take Vill long to recover though, as she went on to retire ten straight batters between the second and sixth innings before finishing the game with four strikeouts, one walk and three conceded hits. Two of Vill’s strikeouts came off Old Tappan’s first two batters in the bottom of the seventh inning.

On the offensive end, South Plainfield got some clutch hits from the first and last batters of their order. With the game tied 1-1 in the fifth inning with two outs, South Plainfield’s ninth hitter, Mckayla Sosa, singled. In the next at-bat, lead-off batter Caity Hughes smacked a deep ball that snuck its way past the glove of Old Tappan’s centerfielder, and the speed of Hughes and Sosa managed to turn that hit into a two-run in-the-park homer.

Hughes, who is South Plainfield’s all team hit leader, is a consistent offensive powerhouse for the team, but Panzarella made sure to give Sosa come credit as well for how she stepped up.

“At the top of the order Caity’s an awesome player, but the ninth girl led out with the hit and that was a big one. With that kind of speed she’s got, the park played into us today.”

Hughes also got a single in the third inning, and Jennifer Grasso drove Jillian Holoboski in for a game-tying score later in that inning.

The win gives the Lady Tigers their 26th win of the season, which is a school record. That mark is the third time this year the team has etched their names into South Plainfield’s record books, as Hughes became the school’s hit-leader earlier this season, and Vill earned the all-time wins record last month.

“It’s something to be proud of,” said Panzarella. “They work hard, they come out and they don’t quit. That’s the bottom line. You can see how many times we’re down, and (the opponents) think we’re done and then all of a sudden ‘bang’ you got a hit. And even I think they’re down sometimes, but… somebody does something to help us.”

The team will take part in the Group 3 final at Kean University on either Saturday or Sunday. The Lady Tigers will face the winner of the other semifinal game between Pinelands and Steinert.

Regardless of who South Plainfield faces, the team’s confidence will be high. Though it’s only been a week, it’s been a long ride for the team since their extra-innings loss to South Brunswick in the GMC tournament. Plenty of teams would’ve packed it in after suffering such a heartbreaking setback but not South Plainfield.

“They know they can win,” said Panzarella. (The GMCT loss) was a bad day and it was bad for me too and I couldn’t sleep the whole weekend, but you’ve got to play the next game. I know they have confidence and I know they can do it. These seniors, they’re hungry. They get (the rest of the team) up. (Senior catcher Camryn Schaefer) is a great leader on and off the field and she gets them pumped off. It was awesome yesterday, and it set the stage for today. I’m proud of them.”