HHS softball team blanked in SCT finals

Lack of hitting and tough calls costly

By: Rudy Brandl
   BRANCHBURG — Lack of hitting, a few bad breaks and some questionable umpiring all contributed to Hillsborough High’s 3-0 loss to Watchung Hills in Saturday night’s Somerset County Tournament softball championship game at North Branch Park.
   The top-seeded Raiders (13-6) only managed two hits in a game that extended their scoreless streak to 18 straight innings. Despite watching her team victimized by a few tough calls in the finals, HHS head coach Cheryl Iaione realized that it’s impossible to win without putting runs on the scoreboard.
"If you don’t score, you don’t win ball games," Iaione said afterward. "Tip your hat to them, they deserved to win. We won’t make any excuses."
   Iaione’s girls would have had a legitimate argument and plenty of excuses if Watchung hadn’t scored two runs in the bottom of the sixth. Watchung’s first run scored after two consecutive controversial safe calls at first base in the fourth inning. Those two rulings helped the Warriors score an unearned run for a 1-0 lead.
   "That was horrible," Iaione said. "I’m disappointed that we didn’t hit the ball but I’m disappointed because they made a couple of bad calls early. I’m not going to cry and say we lost because of the umpire, but those were bad calls and they didn’t help."
   Jen Krause opened the bottom of the fourth with a line drive off pitcher Amanda Morrison’s glove. The ball was fielded by second baseman Kenzie Farneski, who fired to first base. The safe call put the Warriors into a bunting situation and Brittany Siejk executed a sacrifice but the umpire again ruled that the runner beat the throw.
   Watchung took advantage of the two favorable calls and scored when Kristen D’Alessandro reached on a throwing error by catcher Heather Lavoie. D’Alessandro bunted and was hit by Lavoie’s throw, which squirted into foul territory allowing Krause to sprint home.
   That cheap, tainted run held up but Watchung finally smacked out a few legitimate hits in the sixth to add to the lead. D’Alessandro doubled and scored on a base hit by Sarah Shipman, who moved to second on the relay throw to the plate. Jen Grys capped the spurt with a two-out RBI double to deep center field.
   Watchung sophomore Kristen George only surrendered two hits, a leadoff double to left-center by Morrison in the second and an infield single to Marissa Van Cleef in the sixth. Hillsborough didn’t get any other players on base and Watchung played a spotless game on defense. The Raiders only struck out five times, but George moved the ball around the zone and let her defense do the work.
   "She doesn’t throw hard, but she mixes her off-speed pitches well," Iaione said. "She throws a lot of junk and she kept us off balance."
   Iaione also saved some praise for her senior right-hander, who pitched extremely well in her last county game. Morrison didn’t walk a batter and didn’t allow a hit to the outfield until the fifth inning.
   "I thought she did a great job," Iaione said. "We put her in a hole a couple of times with errors but she kept us in there. She pitched her heart out."
   The Raiders last scored in the bottom of the third inning of their exciting 3-2 victory over Bridgewater-Raritan in the SCT semifinals. Since B-R avenged that loss with a 1-0 win in eight innings the following day, HHS entered the county finals with an 11-inning scoreless skid.
   Hillsborough came out swinging after the Panthers took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. Van Cleef didn’t waste any time tying the score. The sophomore left fielder opened the game with a long triple to left-center field and scored easily when the relay throw sailed wide of third base.
   The Raiders went ahead to stay with two runs in the last of the third. Lavoie opened with a bloop single to right field. Courtesy runner Alicia Swickle stole second after Van Cleef was robbed of another extra-base hit by center fielder Christy Szczech, who had started the game on the mound but switched with Leslie Hepworth after getting hit on the shin by Erin McKee’s hard grounder in the second inning.
   Candy Palumbo blasted the go-ahead hit, a booming RBI double to left field. Palumbo moved to third and scored on wild pitches during Morrison’s at-bat with two outs. Hepworth sailed a pair of high fastballs that caromed away from the catcher and allowed Palumbo to score without a play.
   Bridgewater rallied but Hillsborough held on for the victory thanks to the gutty pitching of Morrison and some fantastic defense. Two double plays highlighted the victory, including one in the first inning when the Panthers loaded the bases with no outs before first baseman Chrissy Yard snagged a line drive and stepped on the bag for two quick outs.
   The Panthers cut the deficit to 3-2 in the sixth and had runners on second and third with one out. Nikki Hasse ripped a line drive to second, where Farneski made the catch and quickly fired across the diamond to Palumbo at third for a huge inning-ending double play.
   "We made the plays when we had to," Iaione said. "Who knows what happens if we don’t catch those line drives?"
   Morrison worked around an infield single in the seventh, but fell behind Kristen Capaldo 3-0 with two outs and the tying run at second. She battled back and retired Capaldo on a ground ball back to the box after three foul balls. With power hitter Tiffany Wilson waiting on deck, Morrison knew she wanted to end the game.
   "I definitely knew I had to get her," said Morrison, who struck out three in the victory. "I had to come back with strikes and I came at her with five strikes. The defense was amazing. They just came up with some really big plays."
   Unfortunately for the Raiders, it was the Watchung defense that made all the plays in Saturday night’s SCT final. Although the Raiders lost, Iaione firmly believes her team will be back on this stage again next May.
   "It’s sad for the seniors, but there’s no doubt in my mind we’ll be back," Iaione said. "We have a lot of young players and we have a bright future ahead of us."
   EXTRA BASES — Hillsborough made its first appearance in the county softball finals since 1991, when it dropped a 6-3 decision to Bound Brook … Iaione was an assistant coach to Barbara Hudock on that team … Hudock coached the Raiders to their only two county titles, which the school won consecutively in 1974 and 1975 … Iaione is just the second head coach in the history of the HHS softball program.