The Hillsborough High School softball team isn’t used to having to rally to win games, but the Raiders certainly showed there was no quit in them Saturday night.
Hillsborough rebounded from a two-run, fifth-inning deficit, scoring the tying run in the bottom of the seventh, and mounted another comeback with two in the bottom of the ninth after trailing by a run, as the Raiders captured their second straight Somerset County Tournament title, 6-5 over Bridgewater-Raritan at the Nap Torpey Athletic Complex.
Junior right fielder Lauren Panek proved the catalyst for the Raiders, scoring the tying run in the bottom of the seventh, as she used her speed to score on a four-base error. Panek, who was named the game's MVP, added the winner in the bottom of the ninth, singling and coming home on Alison Shimko’s RBI-single.
“When she [Cheryl Iaione coaching third base] just kept rounding her hand, I knew I had a chance and I just went with all [my speed],” said Panek, who was named the game’s most valuable player. “We needed to win and I knew I had to do whatever it took. So I just ran as fast as I could when I saw the opportunity.”
Panek alternates in right field with junior Anglea LoBrutto, and it was just the luck of the draw that Panek found herself in the starting lineup Saturday.
But Panek’s platoon-mate also had her opportunity, and came through, as LoBrutto delivered a pinch-hit RBI single in the fifth inning to cut a two-run Raiders deficit in half.
"Angela LoBrutto and Panek are so neck-in-neck, and the only way I could pick Lauren tonight was because it was her turn,” Iaione said. “I told Angie she was going to be big at some point, and if there was a runner in scoring position I was going to have her hit. In that other instance, Lauren’s speed, obviously, gives us something Angie wouldn’t have given us.”
“I was hoping, of course, that I would start,” Panek said. “But I knew whoever started it would be good, as long as I had my opportunity.”
Hillsborough got things started with two runs in the bottom of the second inning, taking advantage of Bridgewater-Raritan miscues and a big clutch hit by Emma Hornich.
Shimko and pitcher Brittany Ksiezopolski each reached on errors to start the frame—two of the five miscues the Panthers committed Saturday—before senior catcher Alex Wells bunted the runners to second and third. Hornich then crushed a pitch to deep center field for a two-run double to give the Raiders a 2-0 lead.
Despite Bridgewater-Raritan tallying four runs on six hits in the top of the fifth inning, Hillsborough did not relent, getting a run in the bottom of the frame on LoBrutto’s pinch-hit.
With one out in the bottom of the seventh, Panek tapped one out in front of the plate, but a throwing error resulted in the ball landing more than 200 feet from home plate near the right-field fence and sent Panek off to the races around the bases and home with tying run.
In the bottom of the ninth, after Bridgewater-Raritan took a 5-4 lead, it was center fielder Kristi Ann Ivone who got the rally started, blasting a triple to the left-field fence on a two-strike offering.
"I had two strikes on me, so I knew I had to get something,” Ivone said. “We needed a person on, obviously, so I just choked up and hit it. I saw it go over the shortstop, but I didn’t see it go [past the left fielder]. I just ran as hard as I can and got as many bases as I could.”
With Ivone on third, Panek reached on an infield single, bringing up Alexis Pezza,
who singled to shortstop to tie the game.
After a strikeout, Denise Acone reached on an error to load the bases, before Shimko smacked one to right-center field to win it.
The game’s 11 runs were the most in the county final since 1993, as the teams combined for 22 hits.
Raiders ace Brittany Ksiezopolski allowed five earned runs on 12 hits, but she walked just one and struck out nine to pick up her 16th victory of the season.
Still, the game was another in a long line of classics in the SCT championship game, and this one gave the Raiders their fifth title since 2003.
“These kids, they refuse to lose, they refuse to give up,” Iaione said. “That’s been our trademark and this was a good opportunity to see that. I always tell them that good teams find a way to win.
"We battled back from two down, and we hadn’t had to do that this year, so it showed a lot of resiliency. Bridgewater played a heck of a game, give them a lot of credit, they gave us everything we could handle. But I could not be prouder of this group of kids, right here.”