Eagles play 2 big games in state, conference tourneys

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By Wayne Witkowski

Middletown High School South’s softball team ends its season in a familiar setting: playing in the NJSIAA Group III semifinals June 7 and playing Middletown High School North again in the Shore Conference Tournament championship game the following day at Wall High School.

Middletown North won last year’s Shore Conference Tournament championship game against Middletown South, 1-0, when pitcher Riley Kernan hit a walk-off single in the eighth inning.

Both teams have veteran lineups again, as Middletown South (27-3) has seven starters back from last year’s state championship team — six of them seniors.

But the Eagles first had to take on West Essex High School (26-2), which came into the game with four straight shutout victories, including a 2-0 victory over Sparta High School June 2 for the North Jersey, Section I, Group III title. The state game was played at Caldwell University — a site where Middletown South coach Tom Erbig said he wishes was a little more equidistant for the two teams.

Then it had to refocus on a Middletown North team (26-4) that won the two prior meetings, 2-1 and 8-1 — the latter game being the most runs Middletown South has allowed all season. Since that April 28 game, the Eagles won 17 straight.

“We’re just waiting to put it all together,” said Erbig, who has the most victories in state history with a 741-229 record, prior to the games. “We need to hit in both games and take a little pressure off [pitcher] Maddie McMahon.”

McMahon is one of the six returning senior starters along with Ciara Sullivan, who leads the state with 16 home runs and has a .373 batting average and 38 RBIs; shortstop Julia Blarr, who has excelled defensively at shortstop along with her .452 batting average, 11 doubles, five home runs and 21 RBIs; first baseman Ally Massa; left fielder Jordy DelllaValle; and catcher Hannah Wisialko, who grounded in a run in the last inning that decided a North Jersey, Section II, Group III championship victory, 1-0, over South Plainfield High School. Junior Sarah Corey is the other returning starter.

McMahon pitched a three-hitter and Sullivan blasted a solo homer in a 2-0 victory over Jackson Liberty High School June 4 in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals.

Middletown North lost in the state tournament to South Plainfield, 4-2, May 31 but advanced to the Shore Conference Tournament finals off a 7-3 victory June 4 over St. John Vianney High School. Kernan, who stifled Middletown South twice earlier this season, pitched a seven-hitter against St. John Vianney, with five strikeouts and three walks and help from a balanced hitting attack led by Milena Wilton’s two-run single.

It avenged a 4-1 loss to St. John Vianney in the Monmouth County Tournament. St. John Vianney has strung seven straight county titles.

A year ago, Middletown North suffered two shutout losses by double digits to St. John Vianney and beat it in the Shore Conference Tournament. And now it is playing Middletown South in its final game this season in the Shore Conference Tournament finals.

“There were some bumps for us, losing in the state tournament and to St. John Vianney [in the county finals], but it made us a better team,” coach Marc Rosner said.

He realizes the two victories against Middletown South came a month ago and that both teams could be different now. Middletown South is 7-8 in Shore Conference Tournament finals.

“Maddy McMahon goes out there like Riley as a competitor,” Rosner said. “She does a great job of giving her team an opportunity to win.”

“I feel like we’re always playing them,” said Christina Gebhardt, who leads the Lions with a .423 batting average, 12 doubles, three home runs and 41 RBIs. “We were in a slump in hitting but came out of it the last two games. We just have to make every defensive play, not give them an extra out.”

Kayla Gallo also has 41 RBIs with a .457 batting average, and Kernan has helped herself with a .351 batting average, three home runs and 33 RBIs. Rosner said Liz Dorsa is getting her swing back as she bats .386 with 11 doubles and 20 RBIs. Payleigh Behan bats .449 with 12 RBIs.

Rosner also saluted the play of his catcher, Ryan Rasmussen, who he rates among the best defensively in the Shore.