By Rich Bevensee
There is nothing like defending your home turf by winning a championship, as Finch’s Aces Russo discovered on a rainy, steamy Sunday evening at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
The tournament’s playoff structure was just as challenging on the 14U Aces as it was on any of the other nine teams, as evidenced by the grueling four-game trek coach Dave Russo’s club had to survive on Sunday enroute to claiming the trophy.
But by riding the arms of Abby Cianfrocca and Hannah Jacobson, the Aces proved they had what it took to outlast the other nine contestants.
In the final, Cianfrocca allowed three runs on four hits with one walk while she and Addison Louderback had two-run singles to propel the Aces to an 11-3, three-inning triumph over Stars Fastpitch 14U Bury to close out the Finch’s Aces Stars And Stripes championship.
“Last year we would get knocked out in the first round of the spring and fall and summer tournaments, so winning it shows how far we’ve come as a team,” said Cianfrocca, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Russo reminded his players during the trophy presentation that winning a title at home allowed them to check off one of their preseason goals.
“It’s important that we protect our home turf,” said Russo, whose ballclub went 6-0 while outscoring opponents 53-18. “We practice here, we play here, the organization provides us with financial support, as well as teaching and coaching, and I think it’s important we pay that back to them.”
Cianfrocca and Jacobson endured an extremely busy weekend with the team being short one pitcher.
Jacobson and Cianfrocca split the Aces’ two Saturday games, with Jacobson throwing a two-hitter. Cianfrocca pitched the first of four games on Sunday (the Aces’ final pool play game), and the two girls split Game 4, a 7-3 quarterfinal victory over Syracuse Sports Zone. Jacobson got the win in a 5-2 victory over Finch’s Aces Gallo in the semifinals, and Cianfrocca gutted out the championship game.
“Oh yeah, I’m definitely tired now,” said Cianfrocca, who at 12 years old is one of the youngest members of the team; she turns 13 later this month. “I just tried to keep my motion loose and my mechanics going and keep doing what I had been doing from the first game. I try to stick with my motion.”
Cianfrocca said she primarily used a fastball, curve and change-up to tame the Stars. Her arsenal also includes a drop ball and a “work-in-progress” riser.
“For this game she asked for the ball,” Russo said. “And when it came down to the last inning she asked me, ‘Am I still pitching?’ I said yeah, she said, ‘Good, I want to finish this game.’ I think that’s important, her toughness.”
Only once did the Aces surrender more than three runs in their six games this weekend, and they reached double figures in runs scored twice. In the championship game, seven players registered a base hit, every player reached base at least once, and eight players scored at least one run.
“Our pitching has been very good, but hitting is what keeps us going,” Russo said. “We had good defense, we swung the bats and had a good approach at the plate. The Stars threw all kinds of change-ups in every count, so I think staying back was really important for us.”
Abby Cianfrocca of the Finch’s Aces 14U was named MVP of the Stars & Stripes tournament.
To the Stars’ credit, they were a last-minute fill-in for another program which backed out of the tournament. Coach Gary Bury said they received an invitation from Diamond Nation on a Monday and not until a couple days later could they confirm they would field a full team.
“The folks at Diamond Nation have been very good to us, so it was just a matter of making sure most or all of the girls were available,” said Bury, who noted the team was missing its top two pitchers.
The Stars made quite a run through the tournament, going 4-2 with a scoring differential of plus-3. In the semifinals the Stars knocked off the previously unbeaten and top-seeded NEPA Wolfpack, 5-0. The Wolfpack outscored four opponents, 32-4, prior to running into the Stars.
In the championship game, the Stars claimed a 1-0 lead in their first at bat when Gabbi Rojas reached on a fielder’s choice, stole second, and took third and home on wild pitches.
That was the only time the Aces trailed in the final. Cianfrocca helped her cause in the bottom of the first with a bases-loaded, two-run single.
The Stars tied the game in the second with a Gabby Ciconia RBI single, but the Aces quickly exerted control of the game with a six-run rally in their half of the frame.
Louderback ripped a two-run single up the middle. With the bases loaded and one out, the Stars induced a comebacker to get a force out at home, but the ensuing throw to first in a double-play attempt sailed into the outfield, allowing Louderback and Chloe Jacobson to score.
Sofia Malinconico forced in a run when she was hit by a pitch and Nadia Harris earned a bases loaded walk for an 8-2 Aces lead.
The Stars continued to show life in the third when Rojas laced a single into the outfield and the misplayed bouncer rolled to the wall, allowing Rojas to race around the bases to score her team’s final run.
The Aces weren’t finished, either. In the bottom half, Hannah Jacobson stole home on a double steal, and Chloe Jacobson cranked an RBI triple and later scored on a wild pitch.