One year ago, the Watchung Hills High School softball team pulled off what is widely considered the biggest upset in the history of the Somerset County Tournament by beating heavily favored Hillsborough in the final.
Saturday night, the Warriors managed to even top themselves.
Senior right-hander Abby Cline allowed just one run on five hits, walked three and struck out four, and senior Dana Mertz’s two-out double in the sixth inning plated what proved to be the winning run, and third-seeded Watchung Hills won its second straight championship, 3-1 over the top-seeded Raiders at Nap Torpey Field.
“I think it feels even better than last year,” Watchung Hills coach Mike D’Alessandro said. “Last year was the first year, and I’m not sure people really gave us the credit, even though we did it. It was more like, oh, it was one of those fluke kind of things. But coming back this year, working though and doing it again, I think, for me, it’s even more meaningful. Plus, I feel like because of Hillsborough’s record this year and Hillsborough’s ranking in the state, it’s even more meaningful. That’s a very good team over there that we beat.”
For Cline, who admitted there were times during last year’s final she was expecting the other shoe to drop, confidence certainly wasn’t an issue this time around, and it showed in her and her team’s demeanor.
“I had a lot more confidence this game knowing my team could beat them,” Cline said. “I think last year I had the conspiracy theory in my head, like, ‘Oh, they’re going to come back. They’re just playing with us.’ But this game, you could tell, we wanted it and we knew we could do it.”
“This group has a way to prepare and get loose and get in the right mindset,” said D’Alessandro, whose team recorded its 20th victory Saturday for the first time since 2001. “I felt it last year and I felt it today. When we were out behind the dugout (pregame) doing some motivational stuff, everybody was laughing and showing me we’re confident but we’re loose. Nobody was tense at all.”
For a while, it looked as if Hillsborough was getting ready to embark on another drubbing of an opponent, something the Raiders have done often, entering the game with a 20-1 record with the lone loss coming to Immaculata Heart, the state’s top-ranked team.
After right-hander Alexis Schengrund got a clutch strikeout and a fly ball to escape a first-and-second, one-out jam in the first inning, the senior retired Watchung Hills in order in the second and the Raiders took the lead in the bottom of the frame. Alyssa VanDerveer drew a leadoff walk and courtesy runner, Josette Spencer later scored on an RBI single by Jess Santelli.
Schengrund retired the side in order again in the third, and started the fourth with a strikeout, but Deanna Gonnella walked with one out, went to second on a well-executed sacrifice bunt by Mertz, and scored on junior McKayla Brady’s two-out single to tie the game, which immediately changed the mood in the Watchung Hills dugout.
“McKayla’s hit was huge, getting that run,” D’Alessandro said. “I felt we needed to just break through, and one she got that hit, I think from that point on, the energy over here was unbelievable.”
“I think, for us, it’s about getting that energy up,” Mertz said. “And when we get pumped for a game, I think we’re golden.”
With Cline getting better as the game went on – she retired seven in a row at one point in the middle innings – the Warriors’ offense and their once-floundering co-captain came up huge in the top of the sixth.
Gina Priore led off with a single and Meghan Kovac made it first and second with no outs after her bunt couldn’t be handled cleanly in front of the plate. The Raiders then came up with a huge defensive play that looked like it might get them out of a potentially big inning when a hard grounder to second base was played cleanly by Rachel Handel, who had the presence of mind to tag the passing runner and in one motion and throw to record the twin killing.
But Mertz, who had suffered through a horrific April that saw her batting average dip as low as .060, delivered the biggest hit of her career, slamming one off the center-field fence to plate courtesy runner Madison Scuderi and give the Warriors a 2-1 lead.
“When I was out there in the outfield (postgame) with my team, I couldn’t even believe that this was real that we had won this game,” said Mertz, who returned to form in dramatic fashion once the calendar turned to May. “And it was so hard to believe I had such a great hit in this game that was so important. I can’t tell you how helpful my team has been through this whole thing. If I didn’t have them hitting for me through this whole thing (her struggles), I would have been falling apart.”
“I am so proud of Dana,” D’Alessandro said. “She’s struggled so much and most kids would have just been beside themselves and it would have carried into the next game and the next game and the next game. To her credit, she kept her head up every game, and I think she just believed that eventually it would come. It took way longer than any of us thought, but I think it means so much more now for her to have a big hit in that situation.”
Hillsborough threatened in the bottom of the sixth, with Alison Shimko leading off with a singled, but Cline got a strikeout, a flyout and a comebacker to end it. After the Warriors added an insurance run in the top of the seventh with Scuderi stealing third and then scoring on an error, the Raiders mounted another comeback attempt in the bottom of the seventh.
Kelly Wishard singled with one out, and after a flyout, Alexis Pezza walked to put the potential tying runs on base. But Cline stepped up one last time, inducing a routine grounder to second base to end it.
“I don’t think I would want anybody else (in the circle) in a big game,” D’Alessandro said. “She (Cline) is just such a fighter. You can just see it in her face. She made her pitches when she needed to.”