EDISON, N.J. - In the first semifinals matchup of the Greater Middlesex County Tournament, the South Plainfield High School varsity Tigers softball team edged out the Bears of East Brunswick 4-3 in 10 innings on Saturday morning at Middlesex County College in Edison under hot and sunny conditions.

South Plainfield’s Meghan Hughes’ walk-off RBI-single to left field in the bottom of the 10th scored Makayla Sosa from third after Sosa started the inning at second base due to the International Tiebreaker rule (ITB) to help speed up the game starting in the 10th frame. Hughes’ sister, Caity Hughes, moved Sosa over to third after she reached on a blooper to the outfield.

“It’s awesome because I’ve been struggling the past four games,” Meghan Hughes said after the game regarding her game-winning hit that sent the top-seeded Tigers to the GMC finals on Monday morning weather permitting. “I haven’t been hitting as much as I want, so it felt really good for me.

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“I just knew I had to hit it, because we had one of our fastest players (on third) Makayla Sosa, so I knew I just had to get it out of the infield to score.”

South Plainfield was cruising, leading 3-0 heading into the top of the sixth with two left to play. But, the fifth-seeded Bears tied the game with a moon blast home run over the fence in left. Megan Kelliher’s three-run shot off one of the best pitchers in the GMC, Katherine Vill, gave life to East Brunswick. Kelliher finished the game 2-for-3 with three RBIs and two intentional walks.

“Kat pitched a great game,” South Plainfield head coach Don Panzarella said after the game. “Who would have thought that girl would hit the ball 235 feet. There are two outs in the sixth (at the time of the home run), and it just changed the momentum. I felt bad because the game should have ended up 3-0 at that point. We felt like we were in control. We didn’t quit though. We came back and found a way to win.”

In the top of the seventh, East Brunswick threatened again to score, but Tigers’ left fielder Kayla Rivera ran down a deep fly ball and made a snow cone grab close to the 225-foot fence down the line. The game remained knotted at three, even after East Brunswick couldn’t capitalize on their chance to score with the ITB rule in affect in the top of the 10th.

“She battles. She goes out, stops that line drive and keeps it in front of her and that catch was unbelievable,” Panzarella said of Rivera’s spectacular catch and overall defense. “That’s a big play. This time of year you have to make those plays and whoever makes those plays are going to win these big games. Right now, I’m proud of these kids”

Vill (22-4) pitched all 10 innings for the win giving up 11 hits and two walks, while striking out eight. Vill and Panzarella said her curveball was on which kept the Bears off-balance, and pitched away from the hitters to help neutralize a strong lineup. But even with allowing 11 hits, the only major damage was the one pitch that went into the woods.

“They’re a good hitting team one through nine,” Panzarella said of East Brunswick. “They’re strong kids and they play the game hard and they’re a great team. We beat a great team today.”

South Plainfield jumped on the board with three runs in the bottom of the first inning, as three errors by the Bears helped Caity Hughes, Jillian Holoboski, and Vill score.

As East Brunswick committed a total of five errors for the game, including a critical one in the bottom of the 10th, South Plainfield made only one mistake. In this one, pitching and defense were the difference makers.

“Super all year, they’re steady,” Panzarella said when describing his fielders and team’s defense. “They do what they’re supposed to do. You’ve got a (freshman) at third Holoboski, Meghan’s a senior shortstop so we expect for her to be good. (There’s a) sophomore at second, Naomi’s a senior (at first). There’s some senior leadership with the young kids and that’s been a great blend. Caity in center is fast and covers a lot of ground. Grasso is as steady as can be out there (in right field). Nobody looks at her as anything. But she’s got 35 put outs this year. I think the defense keeps us in the game. There are games we hit, but as a team…defense and pitching have been our strong points.”

Defense and pitching have carried the Tigers up to this point. They were crowned the GMC-White Division champs during the regular season with a 15-1 league record. They have an opportunity to play in the semifinals in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group 3 Tournament on Tuesday against highly-ranked Middletown North. And, they play in the GMCT finals on Monday against sixth-seeded South Brunswick.

South Plainfield might not always hit even when they have the talent, but the stout defense and gutsy pitching by Vill and even Holoboski have gotten them this far with some timely offense. And as the saying goes, defense wins championships.

The Tigers will have a chance to do just that on Monday back at Middlesex County College, and could even win their sectional state tournament and beyond.

For updates on the South Plainfield softball team, follow Chris Nalwasky on Twitter @ChrisWasky.