Lessons learned led Egg Harbor Township softball team to first state championship in program historyBy DAVE O’SULLIVAN
In the spring of 2014, the Egg Harbor Township softball team had the talent to make a run in the state playoffs and possibly compete for a South Jersey Group 4 title. They came in as the No. 9 seed, beat No. 8 Shawnee 8-1 in the opening round, and caught a huge break when top-seeded Kingsway was knocked off by No. 16 Atlantic City. The pathway to a sectional title had just opened up.
Then Maddie Taggart ruined everything.
The Vikings’ then-senior southpaw pitcher shut down the Eagles, limiting them to just two runs in a 3-2 Atlantic City victory. The Vikings went on to earn a berth in the South Jersey championship game, while the Eagles were left to wonder what might have been. Egg Harbor Township head coach Mary Dunlap vowed that would be the last time one of her teams ever looked past an opponent in the state playoffs.
Two years later, the Eagles took home the South Jersey championship, winning an epic 13-inning game against Eastern Regional in the title game after escaping with a 4-3 win over Rancocas Valley in the semis. They went on to beat East Brunswick in the Group 4 semifinals, but lost 4-0 to Watchung Hills in the state championship game.
Players knew last year’s team was good enough to win a state championship, and on that long bus ride home from Kean University, they vowed to return in 2017 — and win.
The Eagles did just that, beating Jackson Memorial, Brick Memorial, Washington Township and Rancocas Valley to win their second straight sectional title, then dispatching Montgomery, 2-0, in the Group 4 semifinals before mounting a thrilling sixth-inning comeback to take down North Hunterdon, 2-1, in the state championship game. The win put the Eagles at 23-0 and sent them into the inaugural Tournament of Champions as the No. 1 seed.
“We’re just ready to play and we want to win. We want to finish what we didn’t finish last year,” Dunlap said following the win over Montgomery. “All year long, even at the beginning, we’ve always taken it one game at a time. There was one significant moment a few years ago (a loss to Atlantic City) when we looked too far ahead and we lost, early in the playoffs, and we learned from that mistake. We’re not going to do that again.”
“In the beginning of the season, people were asking, ‘are you guys going to be good? What’s the deal?’ And I said, ‘we’re going to be better.’ They said, ‘it’s impossible to be better. You guys were undefeated and lost in the state championship.’ I said, ‘we’re going to win the state championship this year,’” senior center fielder Emily Biddle (MacNeil) said after the state championship victory at Kean University on June 3. “And look where we are. We’re 23-0 and we just won the state championship.”
What’s most remarkable about the rise of the EHT softball program — this year’s senior class, heading into the TOC, had a career record of 81-12, including 66-5 the past three seasons — is that the Eagles have continued to show an ability to replace star players who graduate, and find all different ways to win games. Last season, the Eagles had Nicole Wisser, one of the best pitchers in South Jersey, inside the circle. She was also an outstanding hitter in the middle of the lineup. She graduates, and Tori Szrom — almost a mirror image of Wisser — steps right in to become the ace pitcher and No. 3 hitter. Kate Korte was a four-year starter at catcher before graduating in 2016 and moving on to play at Neumann University, and in steps freshman Kaitlyn Riggs, who has the look of another four-year starter at that position. In effect, the Eagles replaced an all-South Jersey caliber battery with another that is just as good. Not many softball programs have the ability to do that.
“Tori, I’m so proud of her. She’s able to buckle down and get the outs when she needs to,” senior first baseman Ella Glenn said of Szrom’s performance in this year’s state championship win. “They were getting hits off of her in the first inning, but she just shook it off. She was able to change a little bit what she was doing and was able to get through it and fight.”
Szrom allowed a leadoff triple and an early run against North Hunterdon in the bottom of the first inning, and things could have turned disastrous. But she weaved her way out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam by inducing a groundout and getting a pair of strikeouts. That three-batter performance was critical because it kept the game 1-0, allowing EHT to mount a comeback in the sixth inning. And Szrom started the game-winning rally by singling with two outs in the sixth. Her courtesy runner, freshman Peyton McGowan, scored ahead of Glenn’s triple, and Glenn scored on an error on a bunt by Marissa Varela, which turned out to be the winning run.
“I have no words. I’m so happy, though. We always find a way to execute and get those runs in,” right fielder Marissa Varela said after the Eagles beat Montgomery in the group semis. “(Szrom) is phenomenal. I am so proud, so happy, so excited. We just need to get the job done. We know we have each other’s backs, so if we’re down we’re going to pick each other up, and if we’re up we’re going to keep it rolling. We always have each other’s backs.”
“She’s a gamer. She wants the ball,” Dunlap said of Szrom, who took over full time this year after serving as the No. 2 pitcher a year ago behind Wisser. “Even last year, I know she wanted the ball more than I gave it to her, and there have been moments in her career when she has said, ‘just give me the ball.’ For somebody to have that drive, I’ll take that any day.”
Egg Harbor Township has had some steady players the past couple of seasons, including perhaps the best outfield in the state with Varela in right, Biddle in center and Bri Lagroteria in left. Lagroteria, in last year’s South Jersey Group 4 semfinals win over Rancocas Valley, made a full-extension, diving catch in the gap to end the game with the tying run on base. Glenn and Alyssa Martini are a solid right side of the infield, and the Eagles have gotten some huge performances from some varsity rookies on the left side.
Elisabeth Alicea has filled the shoes of the graduated Miranda Cincotti admirably, providing solid defense at third base and some timely hitting, and perhaps the biggest key to the undefeated season has been the play of freshman shortstop Zoe Bork. Cris McElhinney was the starting shortstop last year and figured to have another outstanding season in 2017, but an early hamstring injury derailed her season. Bork stepped in and has played with the confidence of a player in her third or fourth year on the varsity level. In the state championship, she made an error in the bottom of the seventh that kept North Hunterdon’s hopes alive. But she came right back the very next batter and made a play that ended the game and sealed the title.
“For the time it took for the umpire to make the call (at second base) felt like a million years. I was just waiting, then started jumping up and down,” Glenn said. “That’s why we have nine players out on the field and nine batting. If you mess up, there are eight other people to pick you up, support you, and help you get your inner thoughts out of your head if they are negative. We tell people to just keep positive thoughts and remember the fundamentals because that’s what this game came down to.”
“Honestly, I can’t even believe it. I think I cried more this year than I did last year. It’s such a great feeling, just running in after that last out. You never know what to expect,” Biddle said. “Zoe could have buckled easily, but she’s headstrong and went after that last ball and got the out.”
What has been a huge help has been McElhinney’s response to the situation. Instead of developing a bad attitude, she took Bork under her wing and showed her how to be a varsity shortstop. That boosted Bork’s confidence, and as Bork continued to make plays under pressure, the other players gained confidence in her.
“I have all the confidence in the world in Zoe. She’s been working so hard. All I kept thinking was, ‘we’re going to win this game,’” Lagroteria said after beating North Hunterdon. “You feel the wind blowing and everyone is cheering. And all you want to do is get in that huddle and scream and cheer. It was amazing. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
There was as much relief as joy on the faces of the Eagles following their state championship victory, the first in the program’s history. They didn’t want to have to bear the stigma of being able to get to the big game, but not being able to win it.
“We know we’re always going to have a chance if there are outs left. Coming in, we prepared all the new girls who haven’t experienced this yet, what our goals were and what we were going to do, and I think we handled it better this year,” Szrom said. “I’m at a loss for words. I’m just so excited. I turned around to hug my catcher (Riggs) and she was already standing right next to me. I was like, ‘wow.’ It hasn’t hit me yet. It’s like I’m still out there on the mound saying I have to get outs.”
“This is what we’ve been working hard for the past four years. We’ve put so much work in last season, and this season, to pave the way to get here. To finally be able to finish it off is amazing,” Glenn said. “I’m just so proud of everyone. Everyone who is at home supporting us, everyone who was here supporting us, and everyone who has been able to pave the way before us to get here.”
Even in the championship game, it looked as though all hope was lost as North Hunterdon pitcher Maggie Swan was slicing through the Eagles’ lineup for five-plus innings. But, for this group of players, all it takes is one little spark to light the fire. They got that spark when Szrom singled with two outs in the sixth. Down to their last four outs, the Eagles didn’t give up or lose faith — and that’s become a hallmark of this incredible three-year run.
“I was getting nervous when we kept going into each inning and still had no runs coming across. I went 0-for-3 (in my first three at-bats) but I don’t care, stats don’t matter. We didn’t have many hits, but we scored and that was a great feeling because we felt like we were back in this game, we’re going to score again and we’re going to win,” Biddle said. “I knew we were going to win at that point. It was getting a little iffy, but I always believe in my team and I know we can pull through. We got that run, we pulled through, and look where we are now — we’re state champions.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays