UNION-- All year and all post-season, the South Plainfield High School softball team has been earning close, hard fought victories over highly touted teams, so it’s only fitting that they had to tough another one out to get their hands on the state championship trophy they’ve been working so hard for.
The Group III State Championship was on the line at Kean University today, as the (27-4) Lady Tigers matched up against Steinert High School in the tournament final. South Plainfield’s sturdy defense allowed them to hold a 2-0 late in the game, but a top of the seventh inning rally by the Spartans (22-4) evened the score, and seemingly put South Plainfield’s title hopes in serious jeopardy. The Lady Tigers endured though, and a walk-off RBI from Camryn Schaeffer gave South Plainfield a 3-2 win, and their first state title since 2005.
Schaeffer, a senior catcher, admitted that her team’s history in extra innings this year made her somewhat nervous heading into the bottom of the seventh with a tied game, but her clutch at-bat eased both her nerves and the nerves of the many South Plainfield fans that packed Kean Softball Field.
“We got lucky on the coin toss to be the home team, and everything went the way it should’ve happened today,” Schaeffer said. “It’s unbelievable. That’s the only way you want to go out.”
Walks on Caity Hughes, Jillian Holoboski and Katherine Vill loaded the bases for the final at-bat, and Schaeffer hit a grounder that sent Hughes in for the winning score.
“I just had to makes something happen,” said Schaeffer. “I had to put the ball in play. I knew Caity, our fastest runner, was on third, and it was one out so a sac fly would have done the job. Walk, hit-by-pitch, anything I would’ve done to get her in. I’m glad I could do it for the team.”
A first inning RBI single from Schaeffer and a fifth inning RBI single from Holoboski gave the Lady Tigers a 2-0 lead heading into the final two innings. In the top of the seventh, with the game seemingly in hand for South Plainfield, the Spartans went on a game-tying rally. Alex Haley scored the first run on an overthrown ball, and with one out and one strike remaining, Steniert pitcher Kaylee Whittaker hit a single to right field to bring in the tying run. Vill, South Plainfield’s pitcher, recovered to end the inning with a tied score.
“We made some mistakes to put them back in.. we didn’t finish it off (in the top of the seventh) but we didn’t quit,” said South Plainfield coach Don Panzarella after the game.
Hughes, South Plainfield’s career hit-leader, ran into some uncharacteristic problems early in the game, when she struck out in her first two plate appearances against Whittaker. The senior slugger got her stride going with a double in the fifth inning, and eventually closed out the game by drawing a walk in her next at-bat and scoring two runs.
"(Whittaker) was pitching me on the side all game, and i couldn't’adjust in the second and first at-bats,” Hughes said. “I was trying hard to creep up on the plate and get that outside pitch and I ended up getting it.”
When asked to describe how it felt to picking up her first state title in her final year as South Plainfield, the senior slugger was at a loss for words.
“It’s indescribable, I still can’t believe it happened,” Hughes said. “I’m still in shock, I have no words to describe it to be honest.”
South Plainfield’s defense made their share of clutch plays as well, and right-fielder Jennifer Grasso put on a stellar performance. Grasso forced a 9-3 double play off an impressive overhead catch in the sixth inning, and also forced another double play by gunning down a runner at home plate on an attempted sacrifice fly.
“Everybody looks at her because she’s small, but she’s the best right fielder I’ve seen," Panzarella said of Grasso after the game. "She gets every ball.”
“To know what to do with the ball at that time is big, because if we don’t get that one out that girl goes to second and we’re in trouble.”
Holoboski went 3-for-3 for South Plainfield while Vill struck out two and walked two while giving up seven hits. Whittaker struck out nine for Steinert. The title win also makes Panzarella and the South Plainfield program a perfect 4-0 in group title games.
With the state championship in hand, the Lady Tigers will now go onto compete in the new Tournament of Champions. The tournament will feature the best of the very best, from top to bottom, and South Plainfield’s players are excited for the competition.
“I think it’s so cool we can find out who the number one team in NJ is,” said Hughes. “I’m excited to play it, I really am.