Rancocas Valley denies Braves first CJ title

Red Raiders nip Braves, 1-0

BY TIM MORRIS Staff Writer

Staff Writer

Top right, Manalapan's Ashley Rampino shows her disappointment after the Braves' tough 1-0 loss in the Central Jersey Group IV final on Saturday in Manalapan. At right, Manalapan's Danielle Calogera beats the throw to first for an infield hit, while above, Danielle Calogera puts the tags on Rancocas Valley's Amy Gentile. Top right, Manalapan’s Ashley Rampino shows her disappointment after the Braves’ tough 1-0 loss in the Central Jersey Group IV final on Saturday in Manalapan. At right, Manalapan’s Danielle Calogera beats the throw to first for an infield hit, while above, Danielle Calogera puts the tags on Rancocas Valley’s Amy Gentile. It started back in March in Florida.The Manalapan High School girls softball team started 2007 on a road to the Sunshine State that could either pull the team together or apart. It brought the Braves together.

The 2007 season ended in Manalapan Thursday having seen the Braves travel further in the NJSIAA Central Jersey playoffs than ever before, all the way to the championship game. Ashley Rampino and Jill Kwiatkowski, the two four-year starters on the ’07 squad, both credited the softball trip to Florida as the defining moment of the season. The Braves developed that mix called team chemistry while on the road.

“Our chemistry, most definitely,” said Rampino, was the reason Manalapan made it to the CJ Group IV final. “Everyone wanted to be here.”

PHOTOS BY JEFFGRANIT staff PHOTOS BY JEFFGRANIT staff Manalapan hooked up with an old nemesis, Rancocas Valley, a team that had eliminated the Braves from the state playoffs in two of the past three years. This time, though, the Braves had them on their home field. However, they couldn’t take advantage of it, falling 1-0 in a superbly played championship game.

“This is hard to take; we could have won it,” said Braves coach Jeannette Bruno. “This was much harder than if they had come in here and spanked us. Either one deserved to go on. It truly was a fine championship game.”

The game’s lone run would come in the very first inning. A lead-off double pulled down the left field line by Dana Bienik set the Red Raiders up. An infield single by Katie Schuh moved Bienik to third, and with two outs, a flare off the bat of Jessica Misiekowski plated Bienik with the early score and a 1-0 Rancocas Valley lead.

It was a pitcher’s duel for the rest of the game. Rampino, who fanned 12, kept the visitors off the scoreboard the rest of the game, giving her team a chance to come back.

Bienik, who was pitching to her spots well, held the Braves to just two hits through the first four innings. But in the fifth inning, a long fly to the fence off the bat of Brianne Tanke, the freshman outfielder who emerged as a power hitter over the second half of the season, was a sign that the Braves were starting to get their timing down on Bienik. But the fifth inning produced only a two-out single by Kwiatkowski.

In the sixth, Danielle Colagera’s lead-off double had the Braves set to get the tying run. But Bienik was up to the challenge, and Colagera was stranded on the base paths.

A walk and a single by Amy Johnson had Rancocas Valley threatening to give its pitcher a bigger cushion for the seventh inning, but Rampino kept it at 1-0.

Down to their final at bat, the Braves did not go quietly. A lead-off single by Nicole Gurrieri set the table. Tanke, who had hit home runs in the Braves’ last two games, got a hold of Bienik’s pitch and lofted a fly ball that looked like it might clear the fence. Instead, it settled into the glove of center fielder Amy Gentile just in front of the fence.

It provided high drama, but was a long out.

Deanna Daluise, who had three hits on the day, kept the Braves’ hopes alive with a single that moved Gurrieri to third. But Bienik would get a grounder to first base to end the game and the Braves’ hopes for their first state sectional title.

“It’s been an exciting couple of months,” Bruno said of the Braves’ season. “What a fantastic ride we had. This is the most fun I’ve had coaching in my 17 years.”

Manalapan finished the season with a 22-7 record and one title, the Shore Conference A North Division, tucked away. Rancocas Valley improved to 20-5 as the Red Raiders moved on to the State Group IV semifinal.

The Braves have a lot to look forward to in the coming years. Tanke and Daluise are just freshmen and are already budding stars. Gurrieri is only a junior, as are Colagera and Danielle LaCugna. This program is poised to remain a Shore power.

But Rampino and Kwiatkowski are not going to be easy to replace. Rampino won all 22 games for the Braves and struck out more than 330 batters. She and Kwiatkowski, a sure-handed third baseman, batted three and four in the lineup.

During their four years, Rampino and Kwiatkowski were the cornerstones of the finest run in school history. Manalapan won three straight A North titles and a Monmouth County championship, and made its first appearance in the state sectional final.

“We’re proud of what we did,” said Kwiatkowski.

The duo raised the bar as to what is expected of a Manalapan team, and it will be up to the underclassmen to follow their lead not only next year, but the seasons after.