Junior righty Julia Apsel pitched a two-hitter and struck out 14 Columbia batters to steer North Hunterdon to an 8-1 victory and its third straight NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 championship on Tuesday at Diamond Nation.
North Hunterdon, the defending Group 4 champion, plays the winner of Wednesday’s Section 1 final, pitting Bergen Tech at Mount Olive, in a Group 4 semifinal at 2 p.m. on Thursday at Caldwell University. The Group 4 championship game is Sunday at Kean University in Union.
Second-seeded North Hunterdon (17-6) broke the game open with a five-run second inning then simply let Apsel go to work. Apsel retired 15 of 16 batters after permitting Columbia’s first two batters of the game to reach base.
“My backdoor curveball and screwball were good today,” said Apsel, “and I had a few good changeups.” Apsel permitted just one run and it was unearned while walking four.
“I’m happy for Julia,” said North Hunterdon coach Anthony Rotondo. “She waited her turn behind Maggie Swan the past two seasons. When I gave her the ball for the seventh inning I told her, ‘this is your year. Go finish it.’”
Swan, who just completed her freshman year at NYU, was on hand for the game with a few of her 2018 North Hunterdon teammates, loudly cheering their former teammates on. “It’s a lot different for me this year,” said Apsel. “I’m just trying to do my best and fill Maggie’s shoes.”
Columbia (16-12), the No. 5 seed, had stunned top-seeded Westfield in the semifinals in come-from-behind fashion. The South Orange school overcame a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Blue Devils, 5-2. But Columbia’s righty Sydney Waldon, usually effectively wild in the zone, issued six walks in the second inning and threw five wild pitches as the Lions scored five runs with the benefit of a single hit.
Waldon, however, was tough when in the zone as North Hunterdon managed just six hits. But Waldon hurt herself with nine walks and hit two batters.
“We saw her Friday against Westfield,” said Rotondo. “She was tough to hit and effectively wild. Our plan was to be aggressively patient. Not necessarily taking the first pitch but looking for something to drive.”
Maria Newsome and Eliza Filus drew bases-loaded walks in the second, Chloe Pocceschi singled in a run and two more runs scored on wild pitches. Cate Sand singled in the third inning, stole second, reached third on a fly ball and scored on a wild pitch to boost the lead to 6-0. Taylor Hucke doubled hard down the left field line leading off the fifth for North Hunterdon and came around on a pair of wild pitches as the lead ballooned to 7-0.
The Cougars finally got on the board in the top of the sixth when Hudson Hassler singled through the left side with one out, stole second and scored as Apsel threw errantly to first base on Claire Salinardo’s bunt. Hassler, who led off the game with a single through the middle, had both hits for Columbia.
Filus tripled to left-center leading off the bottom of the sixth and scored on Pocceschi’s single to right to extend the lead to 8-1. Pocceschi went 3-for-4 with two RBI in the game.
Filus, a junior, broke her left ankle on April 4 and just returned to the No. 3 spot in the North Hunterdon lineup about 10 days ago. She went 2-for-3 with a walk and scored a run. Her booming triple in the sixth perhaps signaling the Lions’ best hitter is back.
“I don’t think I’ve hit anything since I’m back like I did in my last at bat,” said Filus. “I feel good. It’s a little sore after games but I’m getting better.”
Filus kept her focused during her long injury hiatus by keeping score of games on the team’s Game Changer program. “It was tough not be able to do anything,” she said. “I watched the team come together during that time.”
Rotondo certainly is thrilled to get Filus back for the stretch run as the Lions bid for another Group 4 championship.
“Eliza was devastated when she hurt the ankle,” said Rotondo. “We had to stay in her ear. We wanted her to believe she could make it back just like we believed it. Now the ankle is just a memory.”
North Hunterdon also had to survive an injury to Amanda Brogan, who battled with a back injury but has returned to fortify the Lions’ lineup.
NOTES: Columbia center fielder Cara Harrington made outstanding plays on consecutive North Hunterdon batters in the third inning. There were no outs and runners on the corners when Jensen Macaulay ripped a liner to center. Harrington charged in, snared the liner and fired home to easily get the tagging Hucke for a double play. Megan Hanily then hit a sinking liner to center that Harrington grabbed at her shoe tops for the third out.
… Hucke reached base all four trips to the plate. She walked twice, doubled and was hit by a pitch. … North Hunterdon stole five bases.