Ten was the magic number that Mount St. Dominic Academy’s softball team was chasing on Saturday night at Ivy Hill Field in Newark, looking to match Caldwell for the most titles in the history of the Essex County Tournament.
Grace Perez did them four better.
The Lady Lions, No. 6 in the NJ.com Top 20, captured that historic title behind 14 strikeouts from Perez, as the junior standout blanked No. 18 Nutley by a 2-0 final on the campus of Seton Hall University.
In addition to setting the record, Mount St. Dominic (23-3) has now won consecutive county titles in four of the past eight tournaments. They also disposed of Nutley (19-5) in the finale for the second straight staging.
“We’ve never given up on anything,” Perez said when asked for the secret to the program’s success. “We were having trouble with (Nutley pitcher Fallyn Stoeckel) in the first few innings, but we trusted each other. We didn’t just rely on me. We focused on our hitting the little things, no matter how little, like every little ground ball, we just give it 100 percent.”
“The program has been great for a very long time. I’ve been along for the ride for a handful of years. We keep getting great players and they buy into our philosophy,” Mount St. Dominic Rob Stern added. “It’s not about a player. It’s about a team.”
The victors earned the only run necessary in the sixth inning via catcher Sydney Rosenkrantz’s deep sacrifice fly to right field.
Sophomore Naya Martinez opened the frame with a single to left before being moved into scoring position via Olivia Bibbo’s sacrifice bunt and Sophia Kiseloski’s double. Rosenkrantz then broke up the scoreless battle before Kiseloski came home when Gianna Stern reached on a two-out error.
“I would say we kept fighting and we kept inching to it, and the sixth inning was just our inning,” Rosenkrantz said. “This team is special and I’m so glad to work with these girls.”
Martinez added that such a feeling was confirmed when the team got to gather during a Nutley mound meeting, giving them all the confidence that the game, and perhaps the future, was theirs for the taking.
“We’ll get it next year too,” Martinez said with a smile. “I remember it was a timeout and he said to hit a ball to the right side and that’s exactly what she did no matter what it was, and then she scored me.”
Despite Stoeckel nearly matching Perez’s brilliance on the mound (seven strikeouts over six innings), the Lady Lions kept Nutley off the board with Perez throwing to Rosenkrantz, the eventual offensive heroine.
Perez allowed the leadoff hitter to reach base in each of her first two frames before retiring 14 in a row between the second and sixth innings, with all but four of those outs coming via strikeout. She ran into trouble in the top of the sixth, just before the vital offense was gained, watching her streak end through a Robin Niland double before she walked Stoeckel in an intense 12-pitch at-bat.
True to form, Perez got out of the jam with a strikeout, setting the stage for Rosenkrantz’s eventual winner.
“I think that my mindset at the beginning of the game was that you just have to throw strikes, but (I learned to) trust myself,” Perez said. “I’ve been working with Sydney for a long time. She’s seen me grow as a pitcher and I’ve seen her grow as a catcher. The partnership that we have and the connection that we have, it always works no matter what. We always like and love each other.”
It was perhaps only appropriate that Rosenkrantz, Perez’s confidant behind the plate all evening, allowed the Lady Lions’ offensive to finally break through in the run column. While it didn’t match the distance of the prior frame’s showdown, she and Stoeckel engaged in an intense battle that featured several well-hit pitches that left the ballpark, albeit in foul territory.
The eventual fruitful blast was just far enough to secure the win and the historic title.
“I know she was fighting for that moment,” Perez said of her catcher’s winner. “We were all struggling and that’s what we needed.”
“Me and Grace had been working really well together this year,” Rosenkrantz concurred. “I’m really proud of her.”
Whereas Mount St. Dominic returned to Caldwell with a title in tow, Nutley was left empty-handed in its search for its second-ever softball title and first since 2015.
The Raiders, who fell short by one run for the second straight season, mustered one last opportunity in the seventh after Nikki Cicchetti earned an infield single with one out. But the affair ended on one last pop out to third, caught by Martinez after a brief bobble, allowing the Lady Lions’ celebration to commence.
Head coach Luann Zullo was nonetheless inspired by the effort, believing it set the stage for some special in the upcoming state tournament.
“We played hard. It’s difficult. It’s difficult to compete against people from all over the tri-state area,” Zullo said. “We play together. We work hard together and I think they left it all on the field tonight. They gave it everything they had.
“So now we have to move on... (Stoeckel) has been great her entire career. But this year, she has taken it up to a whole other level and she’s a competitor. She is a competitor through and through offensively and defensively. I will put her on the mound against anybody.
The victorious Lady Lions are set to face Paramus Catholic in the quarterfinal round of the North Jersey, Non-Public Group A tournament on Monday, while Nutley will square off against South Plainfield in North Jersey’s Section 2, Group 3 semifinals a day later.
- In the News