By Rich Bevensee
Through smiles and tears, the celebratory conclusion to the Finch’s Aces Fall Invitational could not have been scripted any better by the Central PA Havoc Elite 18U softball team.
Havoc overcame a fierce pitchers’ duel buoyed by a handful of defensive gems, and a late unearned run which forced its players to stage a dramatic come-from-behind rally in its final at bat.
When Havoc ace Nolah Moyer recorded the final out with her 12th strikeout, it sealed a thrilling 2-1 victory over host and top-seeded Finch’s Aces-Cahill in the 18U championship game on Sunday afternoon at Diamond Nation in Flemington.
“We’ve been together for a very long time, so to win our final game, it’s amazing,” said Moyer, named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “I can’t put it into words. It’s the best thing ever.”
Havoc coach Joe Devine, whose senior-laden team is based in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, confirmed that the title game was Havoc’s final hurrah.
“We’re a one-team organization,” Devine said. “Most of these girls have been with me since they were 14, some of them 12. They’ve done a good share of winning, this is their last run, and it’s a classic way to go out for them against a premier team.”
Back-to-back RBI triples by Ashlyn Robinson and Lex O’Brien lifted Havoc from a 1-0 hole in the top of the sixth inning. It was a shocking turn of events considering Aces righty Layla Francisco had silenced Havoc bats through five innings.
Robinson and O’Brien were both 0-for-2 going into their final at bats.
“I didn’t have any doubt in this team that we could come back,” Robinson said. “It’s such an honor playing with these girls. They never gave up. They never hung their heads.”
“I would say we had to dig deep within us and see who wanted it more,” O’Brien said. “Do we want to end our season with a hard loss, or are we gonna come out on top? And now we have one long lasting memory.”
The way the pitchers locked horns made the minimal scoring that much more thrilling. Through five innings, Aces righty Layla Francisco stranded five runners, three in scoring position. The sophomore from North Hunterdon allowed eight hits and no walks and struck out five.
Moyer was even more effective, retiring the first 12 batters she faced until Kyle Petak led off the bottom of the fifth with a single. Moyer gave up two hits and did not permit a walk.
“Being in a pitchers’ duel is exciting. I like the competition,” said Moyer, a senior at Muncy High (Pa.) and a St. Bonaventure commit. “They’re a great team and I like having someone to give me competition. It makes the game fun. I can’t let my team down so I know I have to keep rolling.”
Aces coach Scott Cahill, whose team defeated Havoc, 1-0, in pool play on Saturday, was impressed with Moyer’s approach the second time facing the Aces lineup.
“She hit her spots well, she worked the counts well, went up and down in the zone, she kept our girls guessing, and we didn’t adjust quickly enough,” Cahill said. “As we got through the game later, we did adjust but the ball didn’t bounce our way. It happens sometimes. Sometimes you just have to tip the hat.”
The Aces turned a hustle play into the game’s first run in the bottom of the fifth. With Petak on second base, Maddie Lardieri grounded to short. On the putout at first, Petak took off for third and an errant throw across the diamond allowed her to score.
Nolah Moyer of Havoc 18U was named 18U Finch’s Aces Fall Invitational MVP.
So with Havoc trailing 1-0 in the top of the sixth, there were just seven minutes remaining on the 1-hour, 15-minute game clock, meaning this probably would be Havoc’s final at bat.
“We didn’t think we had this in us one last time, but they dug and found a way and it was beautiful to watch,” Devine said.
Moyer led off with a single to left and courtesy runner Gianna Goodman took over at first. Francisco retired the next two batters before Robinson drove a 1-0 pitch into the right-center field gap and chased home Goodman with the tying run while she finished with a stand-up triple.
“I knew she was going to jam me as much as she could, so I was trying to turn and burn, trying to get myself ahead of the count before she got into me,” said Robinson, a sophomore at Williamsport Area High. “She jammed me prior to that at bat and I learned from it. It felt really great.”
O’Brien stunned the crowd by following Robinson with another triple, a blow to the right field wall which drove in the go-ahead run.
“In my previous at bat I got one inside pitch, and everything else was the outer half of the plate,” said O’Brien, a senior at Mifflin County in Highland Park, Pa. “That’s why I was focused on driving everything to right. I got the outside pitch and did my thing.
“I was struggling this weekend to say the least so when I hit the ball it felt amazing, and Coach said, ‘It’s down, it’s down,’ and I was ecstatic. I was able to come through clutch for my team when I was struggling.”
“Watching that rally was amazing,” Moyer said. “They just turned the whole momentum of the game around. I was trying to do my part, hoping something would come of it.”
In the bottom of the sixth with the game clock expired, Moyer got a strikeout and allowed a one-out infield single to Aces leadoff hitter Eva Szap. With the tying run aboard, Moyer got one more strikeout swinging and the final out with a strikeout looking to cap a wild finish to a riveting championship game.
“It’s very exciting that we came out on top but also very sad because it’s hard to say goodbye to girls I’ve been playing with, some of them since 10U,” O’Brien said. “So yeah, it is a bittersweet moment.”
Tremendous defense on both sides of the diamond led to the thrilling finish.
In the top of the third with a Havoc runner on first and two out, Aces center fielder Ella Watson (a Morristown senior) went fully horizontal to catch a dying liner off the bat of Maddy Devine.
The Aces added another web gem to the highlight reel in the top of the fourth. With two out and Havoc runners on second and third in a then-scoreless game, Francisco reached across her body to snare an O’Brien line drive, which, had it gone through, would have scored both runners.
It was Havoc’s turn to flash the leather in the fifth. Maddy Tavaglione launched a one-out, wind-blown fly ball to left which had Havoc left fielder Emma Vollman turning not once but twice on her way to the warning track. Vollman hauled it in at the wall, prompting Cahill, coaching third base, to share an incredulous laugh with Devine.
The Aces logged one more highlight in the top of the sixth. After Havoc had scored twice to take the lead and with O’Brien on third base, Aces shortstop Zoe Totaro prevented an insurance run from scoring when she made a diving catch of a two-out line drive by Rachel Keister.
Diamond Nation had a vested interest in seeing the Aces succeed, and not just because the Aces call the Nation home. Assistant coach Grace Gigliotti played her prep softball at North Hunterdon and is a former concessions employee at ‘The Nation.’ Aces first baseman Julia Duggan is a junior at Hunterdon Central and works at ‘The Nation’ when not donning the Aces uniform.