After tempting fate in last year’s Somerset County Tournament final and last weekend’s semifinals, the softball team couldn’t find the magic Saturday night.
After rallying twice against Bridgewater-Raritan to win last year’s crown, and climbing back from a two-run deficit against Somerville in last Saturday’s semifinals, the top-seeded and two-time defending champion Raiders were stifled for seven innings by Watchung Hills ace Abby Cline and fell 2-0 at Nap Torpey Field.
Cline fired a six-hit shutout, walked one and struck out five for the second-seeded Warriors, after Hillsborough beat her twice last season and twice more during the regular season this year, including 14-3 last week.
“They played a great game,” Hillsborough coach Cheryl Iaione said. “They made adjustments, we didn’t, and we didn’t hit the ball. If you would have told me we would have lost I might have agreed with you. But 2-0, I’m a little stunned.”
“We were due,” Watchung Hills coach Mike D’Alessandro said. “They’ve beaten us twice this year, they beat us three times last year, and it’s tough to keep beating a good team that often.”
Despite Hillsborough entering the tournament and the game as the heavy favorites, and with Cline still licking her wounds after her two previous outings against the two-time defending champs, the junior had a quiet confidence as she took to the circle.
Watchung Hills got all the runs it would need in the top of the first inning, thanks to some uncharacteristically shoddy defense by Hillsborough.
Steph Huff and Tino Scolaro each reached on infield errors to start the game, and after a pair of groundouts to third base froze the runners and it looked as if Hillsborough might escape unscathed, junior catcher Dana Mertz delivered a line-single to left field to plate Huff, with Scolaro following her home when the ball was bobbled in the outfield.
Hillsborough threatened in each of the first three innings. The Raiders put runners on first and second in the opening frame on a two-out single by Ashley Lamont and a walk to Alison Shimko, but Cline induced a foul out to end it.
Back-to-back two-out singles in the second by Kelly Wishard and Lauren Panek then gave Hillsborough second and third and two outs after an error, but Cline got a lineout to center field to escape.
The Raiders mounted their biggest threat in the third inning, loading the bases, but Cline bore down again, and by the time the later innings came around the righty was on a roll, as she allowed just two hits over the final four frames, twice retiring the side in order.
“I just didn’t feel it tonight,” Iaione said. “I felt like she (Cline) was keeping us off balance, we weren’t making adjustments at the plate and we didn’t have timely hitting. It should be a 0-0 game. We shot ourselves in the foot.”
Hillsborough mounted one final comeback in the bottom of the seventh as Alexis Pezza doubled with two outs on a 3-2 pitch, but after Cline went full again on the next hitter, she got her looking to end it.
“Abby was outstanding,” D’Alessandro said. “She was so prepared for this. She was so focused. I saw it Thursday night (in practice), I saw it again yesterday. We went over the last two Hillsborough games, we kind of talked about what we were going to do and she had that looked in her eyes.”
“I had a lot more confidence,” Cline said. “And I realized just because their name is Hillsborough, it doesn’t mean that they’re the best in the world. I just had to realize I could conquer a team without being so nervous.”
For her part, Hillsborough senior righty Ashley Lamont also pitched a very well, allowing just two unearned runs on six hits, walking two and fanning three. She also notched two of the Raiders’ six hits.
“Ashley pitched a great game,” Iaione said. “She stepped up and did a great job and we didn’t get runs. But I tip my hat to them. They did a great job. I knew they would come out ready, and they did.”1 2 3 4 5 6 7 R H E Watchung Hills (14-6) 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 6 1 Hillsborough (17-4) 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 6 3