NANUET – The John Jay High School softball team never lost faith.
Not after giving up its six-run cushion.
Not the winner of 29 straight games. Not when the defending state Class AA champion was so close to a return to the state playoffs.
Not even when it was down to its last strike, with extra innings looming.
“This team does not give up. They haven’t all year,” Patriots coach Bonnie Schilling said. “They’ve been in deficits before and they found a way to make it work. So, I don’t know that they ever think that they’re counted out until the last possible strike and the last out is called.”
That’s exactly what it came down to on Saturday night.
With two outs and two strikes already against her, with the bases packed with Patriots in a tied game in the bottom of the seventh inning, Tateum Valentine ripped a single up the middle, scoring Amber Velasquez, to defeat Roy C. Ketcham, 9-8, and repeat as champions of Section 1 Class AA.
John Jay will travel to Binghamton to take on Section 4 champion Corning on Monday in the state regional semifinals.
“We’re always practicing, so hitting is a very strong element that we have on our team,” said Valentine. “The (game-winning) hit was just another hit, but there happened to be bases loaded, bottom of the seventh. Just one of those.”
Oh, just one of those.
One of those championship-winning hits to cap a game for the ages at the aptly-named Heroes Field.
The distance separating the top-seeded Patriots (20-0), who won their 30th consecutive game dating back to May 2011, and their intra-district rivals, the second-seeded Indians (16-6), proved to be a matter of inches several times during that final rally alone.
Entering the bottom half of the final inning tied 8-8, Velasquez ignited the Patriots with a perfectly-placed one-out bloop hit that barely fell in to left field between several Indians. With two outs, the speedy Nadia Kemp hit a ball right at shortstop Marlene Cuevas, who had already put on a show for six innings with laser-like throws, but the Patriot beat out Cuevas’ bullet to first.
The play was so close, even Kemp wasn’t sure if she was safe. “I was hoping,” she said with a beaming smile.
Finally, Ketcham pitcher Casey Herzog lost her battle with Gabby Bracchi, walking the bases loaded and setting up Valentine’s knockout punch.
“We all knew coming into this game was going to be rough,” Kemp said of facing the rival Indians, who John Jay beat twice in the regular season, 9-4 and 11-9. “We pulled it together and that’s what matters.”
For the briefest of moments, it seemed John Jay would simply be able to impose its will on Ketcham.
Though initially trailing, John Jay manufactured a pair of runs to take a 3-2 edge in the bottom of the fourth inning, before exploding in the fifth.
Andrea Varvara tripled, Velasquez doubled and Ketcham made a pair of errors, before Kemp stepped in and clobbered a three-run home run over the fence in left-center field, giving the Patriots an 8-2 advantage, seemingly more than enough for the defending champions.
Ketcham, however, decided against allowing Saturday night to become a coronation.
Benefiting from an error, three consecutive walks from starter Vicky Lattanzio and a wild pitch that ended up scoring two runs on an errant throw to home plate, the Indians chipped the deficit down to 8-5 and forced Lattanzio out of the contest without recording an out in the top of the sixth inning.
Reliever Amanda Gisonni failed to slow Ketcham’s momentum, allowing Taylor Travis to smack a run-scoring single through the left side. With two outs, Herzog also punched a single to left, plating two more Indians and tying the contest.
“That’s the team I know that I have. I didn’t expect anything less,” said Ketcham coach Melissa Zehr. “It was a great game today. We knew coming in it was going to be a great game.
“We came to battle, we came to fight and we did that the whole game. I was very proud of the girls, I don’t have a complaint about anything. They did a great job.”
All season, the Patriots maintained the only team that could beat them would be themselves, if they lost focus on the field. Suddenly, their fears seemed to be taking shape.
“You hope that that doesn’t happen,” said Schilling. “You hope that 29 (consecutive won) games doesn’t end the way the situation was setting up with a few unearned runs. I wasn’t giving up on them. I would never give up on them.”
After Gisonni retired the side in the top of the seventh, striking out two batters, Valentine and the Patriots’ offense rewarded that faith with a second consecutive sectional title.
“It feels awesome,” said Valentine. “I love it.”