MIDDLETOWN -- After their heartbreaking extra innings loss in the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament final this past weekend, the South Plainfield High School varsity softball team had to quickly shift their attention to their sectional championship game against Middletown North.
You could see it on the players’ and coaches’ faces after the defeat that it wasn’t going to be easy moving past that game.
But they did, as the third-seeded Tigers upset top-seeded Middletown North, 3-2, in the 2017 NJSIAA/Wilson Sporting Goods North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 Tournament Wednesday afternoon.
The win gave the Tigers their first sectional title since 2009 -- and eighth in school history -- and prevented losses in both the GMCT and sectional final in back-to-back years. South Plainfield fell to Middletown South in the 2016 N2G3 tournament final and to South Brunswick in the GMCT final the last two seasons.
Does the win take the bad taste of their mouths?
“It does,” South Plainfield head coach Don Panzarella said. “I can’t say enough. We’ve been talking all year. We’ve had four losses in extra innings. We just kept telling (starting pitcher Katherine Vill) today you just have to suck it up. It’s your senior year. You’ve got to win this one. We weren’t going to let it happen like it did the other day (or in last year’s final). My hats off to them. They were relaxed.
“We jumped out and I think that’s the key for us. (Middletown North) is a great team and I think my team played great today. We got a timely hit. It’s awesome. I don’t even know what to say. It’s impressive.”
South Plainfield used their winning formula of stellar pitching from Vill, solid defense, and timely hitting against the Lions.
Vill tossed a six-hitter giving up two runs and a walk while striking out three, including the last batter of the ballgame, and the Tigers mustered across a run in the top of the first inning to take an early lead.
Shortstop Caity Hughes, who went 2-for-3 in the contest, slapped a single to right field to lead-off the game. Hughes then stole second base and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by right fielder Jennifer Grasso. And like they’ve done all year, Holoboski then drove Hughes home with a sac fly.
However, Middletown North tied the game at 1-1 with a run in the bottom of the second on an RBI single by Alyssa Vetrano which scored Adriana Cerbo. They could have had more as Lions pitcher Riley Kernan started the inning with a walk and courtesy runner Dri Noterile went all the way from first to home on Cerbo’s double to deep right, but Grasso picked up the ball at the fence, threw to relay man and second baseman Makayla Sosa, who then fired home to catcher Camryn Schaeffer who tagged out Noterile.
After shaking off her foot injury a few weeks back, Schaeffer also delivered with a two-RBI sky-high double to deep left field to put South Plainfield up 3-1. That hit proved to be the difference.
The Lions wouldn’t go down easy however and provided drama in the sixth and seventh. Milena Wilton and Liz Dorsa began the bottom of the sixth with two hard singles which prompted a circle visit Vill by Tigers’ assistant Nick Panzarella. That worked as South Plainfield got the first out on a fielder’s choice and an inning-ending double play by Sosa as she tagged out Kayla Gallo going from first to second before throwing the ball to first baseman Cameron Marks.
In the seventh, shades of the GMCT final on Saturday against the Vikings began to almost replay as the South Plainfield led 3-1 as well going into the final frame. The Vikings scored two to tie it and send the contest into extras, but this time, Middletown North only mustered one as Vill got Ryan Rassmussen to strikeout to end the game and send everyone in green into a happy frenzy.
“It brought us down obviously,” Vill said of the loss to South Brunswick. “We were looking so forward that but we knew it wasn’t our last option and we had to go win states. Really the following practice on Monday we were like, OK guys we know it sucks we lost but we have to bounce back because we’re not done yet.
“I was very determined. I felt good about my (performance in the circle). Everyone was here and we came to play.”
Next up for South Plainfield is a date with North Jersey, Section 1, Group 3 winner Old Tappan. The two squads will meet Thursday at 4:00 p.m. at Montclair State University.
“I wanna keep going and now we have to play tomorrow,” Panzarella said. “It’s tough again back-to-back when the other team had an extra day of rest because we got rained out. It’s going to be tough, but we gotta do it, you know.”
Asked what this win means to her, Vill exclaimed, “It means we’re not done yet!”
*Of note, Panzarella is the state’s active wins leader with 730. He is 14 wins away of breaking retired Middletown North coach Tom Erbig’s record of 743 victories.