Get ready Toms River, here comes the Sacred Heart High School softball team.
Behind Rosie LaGrotta’s no-hit gem and some clutch fielding and hitting by her teammates, the Lions captured their first Non-Public B South championship in eight years with a 4-0 victory over Gill St. Bernard’s Tuesday afternoon at Northern Burlington High School.
Sacred Heart (26-6) will seek the program’s first-ever state title on Saturday when it meets North Jersey champion Lodi Immaculate (26-5), an 8-2 winner over Newark Academy Tuesday. The site, either Toms River North or East, and time is to be determined.
“Finally!” said senior captain Rachel Gavigan, who got to celebrate a sectional title on the team’s fourth consecutive trip to the South Jersey final. “I’m just so ecstatic right now. We’re going to Toms River. We’re going to make that 85-mile journey.”
Three years ago, Sacred Heart wore t-shirts that said it took 85 miles to the top of the mountain, the same distance to Toms River, site of the state championships.
“I told the girls they got to the top of the mountain, now they have to conquer the top of the mountain,” Sacred Heart coach Les Olson said.
LaGrotta helped punch Sacred Heart’s ticket to Ocean County with possibly the best pitching performance of her young, successful career. The sophomore faced the minimum 21 batters in her seven-inning masterpiece.
LaGrotta’s lone blemish was a leadoff walk in the sixth when she just missed low on a 3-2 pitch. The baserunner didn’t last long as the Lions turned a 6-4-3 double play.
“She was great,” right fielder Tori Caterina said. “That’s probably the best game she’s ever thrown.”
“Rosie was phenomenal,” Gavigan said. “She was definitely on her game, just one pitch away from a perfect game.”
LaGrotta only struck out four, but her ability to keep the ball down in the strike zone helped her induce 11 groundouts, including six to shortstop Kelly Hullihen.
“I just wanted to keep the ball low and work my outside pitches,” LaGrotta said.
“She was on the black (corners of the plate) all day,” Olson said.
Sacred Heart hitters encountered some trouble against the speed-changing pitching style of Gill St. Bernard’s Nicolette Miranda, but the Lions broke through with a four-run third inning.
Danielle Lugo led off the frame with a double and Samantha Caterina followed with a single. After a Gavigan RBI fielder’s choice, Lindsay Dwyer doubled home a run, and two batters later, Tori Caterina doubled over the center fielder for a two-run, two-bagger.
“We had a lot of pop-ups in the game, she was throwing a lots of change-ups,” Tori Caterina said. “I just wanted to be patient and get a good pitch to hit there.”
With a comfortable four-run cushion, the only real suspense came in the seventh when Sacred Heart was trying to finish off the no-hitter. LaGrotta got the first two outs on routine ground balls, but needed some big help from center fielder Jocelyn Cintron to close out the game.
Gill St. Bernard’s best swing of the day came with two outs when Miranda laced a ball destined for the right-center field gap. The speedy Cintron closed quickly on the line and with a full stretch on the dead run, caught the ball in the webbing of her glove.
“I was surprised I caught it,” Cintron, a senior, said. “I thought it was going over my head.”
Gavigan was one of the Lions that knew Cintron was going to track the ball down.
“As soon as the ball went in the air,” Gavigan said, “I knew it was time to start celebrating.”