The story of the 2013 Watchung Hills High School softball team’s unlikely run through the NJSIAA Tournament has been written from several perspectives.
There’s ace Abby Cline, whose big-game pitching and mastery of the clutch has become legend. There’s senior Dana Mertz, who suffered through an abysmal April only to lift the Warriors onto her back and carry them through May. And there’s the Warriors defense, which has been airtight throughout and often spectacular, making big plays in big spots to set things up for an offense that’s been as clutch as it comes.
Tuesday in the Group IV semifinals, junior second baseman Jess Gaeta wrote a new chapter.
Hitless during the Warriors’ road victories in the sectional semis and final, Gaeta joined the party, delivering RBI singles in the second and sixth innings Tuesday to lift Watchung Hills into the state finals with a 2-1 victory over Livingston at Yanticaw Park.
“I’m really happy for Jess,” said Watchung Hills coach Mike D’Alessandro, whose team will face South Jersey champ Washington Township on Saturday in Toms River. “Jess is kind of below the radar for this team, but she does a lot of good things for us and just doesn’t get a lot of attention for it. It’s really nice for her to come up big in this game and sort of share a little of the limelight with some of her teammates.”
Trailing 1-0, Deanna Gonnella started the bottom of the second inning for Watchung Hills by lining a single into left-center field, and after Mertz walked, McKayla Brady bunted the runner over. Gaeta followed and lined an RBI single the other way to right field, chasing home courtesy runner Annie Suitovsky with the tying run.
In the bottom of the sixth, with the game still knotted, Gaeta took her clutch hitting to another level.
Meghan Kovac led off with a single, and after a strikeout, Mertz hit into a fielder’s choice, forcing Kovac at second base. Brady then singled to right field, chasing Mertz to third, bringing up Gaeta, who deposited a two-out single into center field to give the Warriors the lead.
“My goal was just to put it in play,” Gaeta said. “We capitalized on our hits and our base-running and it was great.”
Seeing Livingston ace Jess Peslak for the first time, Gaeta admitted it took her team a while to adjust to the riseballer’s unusual release point, but Gaeta said, Watchung Hills came ready and that was the difference.
“We knew she was going to be a riseball pitcher,” said Gaeta, who also stole two bases Tuesday. “So we knew we had to stay back in the box and look at those high pitches. We kind of struggled with that earlier in the year, but this game, we really came prepared for it and it really helped.”
Watchung Hills – and Cline – could easily have folded things up immediately after Kylie McLauighlin started the game by crushing a 3-2 hanging changeup from Cline over the center-field fence. Instead, Cline had a sly grin on her face as she turned to face the next hitter, striking her out and then getting the next two on groundouts to limit the damage and set the tone.
“It’s one run,” D’Alessandro said. “We were going to need to score to win anyway, and I think the fact Abby came back and got the next three batters pretty easily made a huge difference. All of the sudden we saw that they (Livingston) were mortal, so one run wasn’t going to phase us.”
As Cline continued to work her way through the dangerous Lancers lineup, the Warriors defense was on top of its game, as usual, helping out its ace with the routine, the difficult and the impossible.
Livingston left five runners on, including three in scoring position, and the final score could have looked a lot different if not for Watchung Hills’ gloves – and throwing arms.
From Gonnella’s cannon behind the plate cutting down the speedy runners from bunt-happy Livingston to Gina Priore’s lightning quick glove at third base, and from Kovac’s mastery of shortstop and the fearless Brady laying out to make a diving grab of a would-be extra-base hit in left field, Watchung Hills’ ace knows how good she has it.
“Our team is just doing amazing things right now,” Cline said. “We’re all clicking and everything’s coming together at the perfect time and nothing could be better.”