It didn’t take long for Dana Mertz to get a chance at redemption Wednesday in the semifinals of the NJSIAA North 2 Group IV Tournament, and the senior certainly cashed in.
After striking out with the bases loaded and one out in the first inning, Mertz proved equal to the task in the fifth, as the first baseman ripped a two-out bases-loaded double to knock in three runs and blow the game open and the fourth-seeded Watchung Hills High School softball team used a four-hit shutout from ace Abby Cline to notch a 4-0 victory over top-seeded J.P. Stevens to advance to the sectional final.
“Obviously, she had the same chance in the first inning and didn’t get it done,” said Watchung Hills coach Mike D’Alessandro, whose team will visit second-seeded North Hunterdon at 4 p.m. Friday in the final. “But we kind of joked in the dugout, I said, ‘You know the way this game works, Dana. You’re not feeling too good right now, but you might end up being the star of the game.’ And she had a big smile and said, ‘You’re right, coach.’ So now we’re going to have some fun with that one because the second time, she certainly didn’t let the opportunity pass.”
The Warriors (23-5) launched an immediate rally, as Gina Priore and Meghan Kovac each singled with one out in the top of the first innings. Deanna Gonnella then walked to load the bases, bringing up Mertz, who waved at strike three, before Hawks ace Rebecca Coleman induced a pop out to end it.
Four scoreless innings later, Mertz and Watchung Hills did all the offensive damage they would need.
Amanda Hopeck started the fifth inning with a walk, and after Kayla Schnik reached on an error and Coleman induced a foul out on a bunt attempt for the first out, Hopeck and Schnik pulled off a double steal, putting runner on second and third. Priore then slapped one toward first base that couldn’t be handled cleanly and Hopeck scored to break the scoreless tie as Priore beat the play to first base.
After Kovac followed with a grounder to third base that forced Schnik at home and Gonnella walked again to load the bases, Mertz came up and ripped one off the top of the left- field fence that came less than a foot from leaving the yard, clearing the bases and providing the final margin.
“Just coming into this game, I was so nervous I couldn’t even hold the bat straight,” Mertz said. “Finally, when we got that run, it was just a breath of fresh air and I felt, ok. I can do this. From there it was just swing the bat and hit the ball.”
With a 4-0 lead in her pocket, Cline did the rest, finishing up the four-hitter allowing two walks and striking out two. The senior was tested in the sixth inning when J.P. Stevens go a leadoff single from Gabby Young before a two-out walk by Amanda Lombardi gave the Hawks first and second, but Kovac made a dynamite play, diving toward the middle of the diamond to grab a blooper that looked destined for center field to end the frame.
Cline then retired the side in order in the seventh, with McKayla Brady contributing a diving catch in left field to keep the bases clear.
“That’s what she (Cline) is all about,” said D’Alessandro, whose team will be playing in its first sectional final since 2001, and its first ever as a Group IV program. “Every time there’s a big game I feel Abby’s going to bring it. It’s just a focus that she has and a mindset that she has. She’s not a big strikeout pitcher, but she’s very smart, moves that ball around, and she knows she has an outstanding defense behind her, and that’s the formula for us winning. She made big pitches today.”