UNION TOWNSHIP (Union) – With all the weather-related difficulties that have impacted the scheduling of the Union County Tournament semifinals the past week, it seemed appropriate that nothing would come easy for the high school softball teams that finally got to suit up Saturday at Kean University.
After trailing from the first inning on, second-seeded and two-time defending champion Governor Livingston was forced to rally from a three-run deficit, scoring three in the sixth inning and the winner in the seventh to beat No. 3 New Providence 4-3 in the opener. Just over an hour later, top-seeded Westfield saw its four-run lead nearly disappear, but held on for a 5-4 victory over No. 4 A.L. Johnson.
It certainly looked as if New Providence would gain its revenge for the 9-2 whipping it took from the Highlanders in last year’s final, as the Pioneers took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning. But Governor Livingston got three in the frame, highlighted by a two-run single from catcher Kacie Worswick, and tallied the winner in the bottom of the seventh as Steph Bade led off with a double and pinch-runner Lauryn Distaso scored on Taylor Hendrzak’s bases-loaded walk.
“We tried not to focus on that (deficit),” said Governor Livingston coach Rick Iacono, whose team is making its fourth straight trip to the final and will seek its third straight championship and sixth title since 1997 at 12 p.m. today here against Westfield. “We tried to focus on the fact that we had to get a run. When you’re down 3-0, you need a run. I believed we would have an inning, I just didn’t know when. I just hoped we had it before we went home.”
“They’re our biggest rival,” said Bade, who finished 3-for-3 with two doubles. “And we just wanted to come back and win.”
New Providence scored twice in the first inning, as Elizabeth Mohan doubled with one out, went to third on Alex Esposito’s infield hit, and after a walk by Cassandra Squeri loaded the bases, Mohan scored on an RBI single by Amelia Ekert. Kelsey Quinn then walked with the bases loaded to make it 2-0.
With Squeri cruising, scattering three hits and no walks over the first five frames, New Providence added a run in the top of the sixth inning, as Ekert led off with an infield hit, went to third on a Kelsey Quinn double, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Suzie Gargiullo, a play on which Governor Livingston second baseman Taylor Hendrzak made a phenomenal grab with her back to the infield on the looper that seemed destined for short right-center field.
But Governor Livingston wasn’t about to let its reign end without a fight. Colleen Frank led off the sixth with an infield hit, stole second, and after an out, Melissa Quinn’s bunt single was thrown away, allowing Frank to score. After Carol Lynn Goldbeck singled and Squeri induced a fly out, Worswick had a quick chat with Iacono near the third-base coaching box and then drove a screaming liner that got over the center fielder’s head and one-hopped the fence, chasing home two runs.
“He told me to stay within myself and do what I could do and try and drive the ball,” Worswick said. “It was an outside pitch and I just tried to go with it.”
As Governor Livingston celebrated its come-from-behind win, Westfield was faced with a rally from A.L. Johnson after leading throughout, only the Blue Devils and veteran ace Elena Scarano weren’t about to let their finals berth get away.
After the Crusaders took a 1-0 lead on an error in the top of the third, Westfield struck for four runs in the bottom of the frame, as an RBI single by Cali Chambliss and an RBI double by Scarano was sandwiched by a two-run double by Julia Criscuolo. The Blue Devils extended the lead to 5-1 in the bottom of the fifth inning on an RBI single by Natalie Tupper, but Stephanie Teixeira blasted a three-run homer over the left-field fence in the top of the sixth to draw the Crusaders within one run.
“After the first and second hit, I just tried to calm myself down and focus where the pitch needed to go,” Scarano said. “After (the home run) I just had to focus in and go after the next batter.”
After inducing a foul out, Scarano allowed a hit to Emily Bailey, but got a strikeout to end the inning and retired the Crusaders in order in the seventh to end the game.
“She (Scarano) has been so cool for us, mentally,” said Westfield coach Caitlin MacDonald, whose team fell to Governor Livingston in the 2011 final and is seeking its first championship since 1998. “She’s a centered, focused player, she doesn’t get too high or too low, and that worked to her advantage today.”
Westfield will try for the elusive three-game sweep against Governor Livingston, which the Blue Devils have already beaten twice during the regular season. And while the junior-heavy team clearly remembers the defeat in the final two years ago, they also know it won’t be easy.
“Beating anybody three times is tough, but we have some experience doing it,” MacDonald said. “We did it to get here, against Cranford. And these juniors got knocked out in the final by G.L. their freshman year, and they remember that.”