Pinelands Regional Softball Squad Bounced By Steinert in State Semifinals

By DAVID BIGGY | Jun 07, 2017
Photo by: David Biggy Pinelands senior catcher Cassidy Buckley snatches a popup in foul ground during the Wildcats’ 5-0 loss to Steinert in the NJSIAA Group III semifinals on June 1 at Rowan University.

On paper, the NJSIAA Group III semifinals contest should have been a close game, and for a couple of innings it was just that. But one team was confident and the other seemed tentative, and once defending Group III champion Steinert took control of the game with a big third inning, the wind in Pinelands Regional’s sail disappeared.

“The temperature of the team just wasn’t there,” said senior center fielder Madison Dancisin, who whacked the first of the Wildcats’ three hits in the top of the first inning. “The whole thing was weird for us. It was a big game, and it looked like we were ready to play. But our nerves were so high, and we really didn’t have the same intensity we usually have.”

After winning the Group III crown a year ago, the experienced Spartans were the team to beat again this season. And despite a scoreless first two innings, they clearly were the more comfortable crew. In the bottom of the third, Steinert (22-4) turned opportunities into runs and the Wildcats (21-9) did little to get themselves back in the game.

With Pinelands junior hurler Jessie Rising blowing through Steinert’s first six batters during the first and second innings, Nicole Cerasi led off with an infield single and stole second base before Kelly Keane walked. After Rising struck out Cassidy Wood, Courtney Danser dropped a bunt, and an error on the throw to first allowed Cerasi to score the game’s first run, while Keane and Danser advanced an extra base. Morgan Comfort then drilled a single into left field, bringing in both runners to make it 3-0.

After Comfort stole second and Carli Backlund reached on another infield single, Rising faced a first-and-third situation and the third and fourth batters in Steinert’s lineup slated to come to the plate. Rising managed to get Madison Balke to bounce out to Amanda Cusicanqui at third base – Comfort holding at third as Backlund went to second – and then fanned Alex Haley to prevent further damage.

Unfortunately, it was enough damage.

“We made a mistake on the bunt, and then the big hit with second and third killed us,” said head coach Keith Lowe. “We just weren’t emotionally invested in this game. We needed everything to be out there. We needed every girl on the field to bring everything she had and play loose. We just didn’t do it.”

Rising and the Wildcats got through the fourth and fifth innings unscathed, but the Spartans dropped the hammer in the sixth, again taking advantage of opportunities to score two runs and seal the victory.

After Balke walked to lead off, Haley grounded into a fielder’s choice for the first out. Rising gave up a walk to Kasey Giordano, but fanned the next batter, Taylor Hawkes, for the second out. Steinert got a break when Keane hit a one-hopper off the basepath line into foul ground, but the home plate umpire said the ball hit the first-base foul line, allowing Haley to score the fourth run. Another walk to Olivia Owens loaded the bases for Danser, who lined a single into left to bring in Giordano.

With one out in the top of the seventh, senior outfielder Nicole Ramirez reached on an error before catcher Cassidy Buckley smacked Pinelands’ third hit of the contest, but winning pitcher Kaylee Whittaker retired the next two batters to send Steinert to a second straight Group III championship.

Rising had the other Pinelands hit, an infield single in the second inning, and fanned 10 Steinert batters. The Spartans ultimately repeated as Group III champions with a 3-2 win over South Plainfield three days later.

Despite the disappointing loss, Dancisin chose to reflect on a happier time earlier in the week – when the Wildcats captured the program’s only state sectional title with a 3-0 win over Seneca.

“Losing this game sucks, but we can’t let it take away from what we’ve accomplished this season,” Dancisin said. “Winning the sectional championship was real, and we made it here to Rowan University to play against the defending state champion. We can be proud of what we did because we were one of only 12 teams still playing in the state tournament. That’s insane.”

Pinelands was scheduled to play the Ocean County Tournament championship against Donovan Catholic on June 2, but the Griffins opted to forfeit the contest because they were scheduled to play in the Non-Public A championship on June 3 – by way of a 6-5 victory over St. John Vianney in the semifinals on June 1 – and they didn’t want to play three straight days, Lowe said.

Considering the Pinelands seniors didn’t get onto the field for the last game of their careers, it’s a bittersweet end to the season despite the Wildcats being awarded a third county title in four years. They won the OCT, on the field, in 2014 and 2015.

“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Lowe said via text message on Saturday. “It’s just ridiculous.”

biggy@thesandpaper.net

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