By Wayne Witkowski
Middletown High School South’s defending NJSIAA Group III champion softball team has six returning seniors — all starters — back in the lineup, and it has shown the makings of another championship contender in a 6-2 start this season.
“Definitely. We have the pitching that can take us to the state finals,” coach Tom Erbig said.
Middletown South comes off last season’s Shore Conference A North Division championship and trip to the Shore Conference Tournament finals, where it lost to Middletown High School North, 1-0. A day later, it won the state title to cap a 28-5 season.
On April 18, Erbig tied a state record with his 721st coaching victory in 36 seasons in a 10-3 win over Howell High School. On April 20, the Eagles visited Freehold Township High School, where Erbig had the chance to stand alone in state annals. He shares the record after the Howell victory with Hunterdon Central Regional High School coach Pete Fick.
“Last year, there were a few little things we did to be a solid team,” Erbig said. “Can we make that one play you need to win games at tournament time?”
That issue hasn’t come up much for veteran No. 1 pitcher Maddy McMahon, a senior, except perhaps in the two losses where a timely hit by her teammates was missing.
Middletown South, which is ranked No. 6 in one state poll, dropped a 1-0 loss in eight innings April 16 to top-ranked Mount St. Dominic Academy in the NJ Pride/Essex County High School Softball Challenge at Essex County Ivy Hill Park in Newark.
McMahon pitched the distance, scattering seven hits with 10 strikeouts but yielded a triple and a walk-off bloop single in the eighth inning. McMahon dodged a big threat in the sixth inning when a groundout was turned into a force at the plate and she picked off a runner at first base.
Kelsey Oh, who is headed to the University of South Carolina and was regarded last season as the best pitcher in the state in some circles, checked Middletown South on two hits by junior third baseman Sarah Corey and McMahon and had 17 strikeouts. Corey has been the Eagles’ top hitter with a .476 average.
Against Howell, McMahon scattered eight hits and belted a grand slam in the first inning, and Corey batted in two runs with three hits.
Middletown South’s other loss came to crosstown rival Middletown North, 2-1, April 8, which decided the division lead up to this week. Liz Dorsa grounded into a fielder’s choice for the go-ahead run in the fifth inning for Middletown North, which ranks No. 4 in a leading state poll at the time.
Earlier in the rally, Milena Wilton slugged a single to bring home Adriana Cerbo, who doubled and then reached third following a throwing error in the fifth inning for Middletown North. Sophie Wilson lashed a run-scoring single in the first inning for Middletown South. Riley Kernan scattered five Middletown South hits, while McMahon allowed four hits in the loss.
“In the games we lost, we did not get the bat on the ball,” Erbig said. “We’ve been hitting real big in other games. We have a lot of offense — power offense. People who have not hit home runs in the past are hitting them now. We’ve got great pitching.
“It’s a work in progress. We’re learning on the fly.”
Eight players return from last year’s Middletown South team, led by seniors Julia Blarr, who moves from third base to shortstop; Ciara Sullivan, who goes from left to center field; first baseman Ally Massa; catcher Hannah Wisialko; and right fielder Jordyn DellaValle, who saw spot action last season. Sullivan comes into the week with a team-best 12 RBIs and a .360 batting average with five home runs, four of which were hit in an 18-5 rout of Red Bank Catholic High School.
Middletown South has 12 home runs as a team through the first seven games.
Massa has eight RBI to go with a .435 batting average.
The other starting spots are filled by sophomores Jillian Bigos at second base, either Jill Martin or Sarah Riso in left field and freshman Sophie Wilson as the designated player. Wilson and Riso also are backup pitchers. Sophomore Alyssa Carfora is a utility infielder. and junior Morgan Russo is a backup catcher.
Wilson belted a homer and drove in three runs in Middletown South’s victory over Howell.
Middletown South has a home game against Manalapan High School April 21. On April 23, it is scheduled to play Immaculata High School in a showcase at Raritan High School. After that comes an April 30 doubleheader at home against Old Bridge High School and Sayreville War Memorial High School.