Hunterdon Central’s Sarah DeStefano had to contend with a lethal Mount St. Dominic lineup.
You may get a flavor for where your team is headed through four, five or six games of a high school softball season, but everyone can benefit from a true barometer, a reality check if you would, to discern the underlying truth.
Top-ranked Mount St. Dominic called Hunterdon Central to set up one of those softball chemistry classes on Wednesday in Flemington. Both teams have reason to believe the lesson was well worth their while.
“I figured iron makes iron stronger,” said Rob Stern, one half of Mount St. Dominic’s two-headed head coaching alignment with Lorenzo Sozio.
The 2019 Non-Public A champion Lions showed they are very much a repeat state champion threat during an entertaining 10-6 road victory. Hunterdon Central, a perennial Group 4 power out of the powerhouse Skyland Conference, not only showed it can take a punch, it proved it will willingly engage in an all-out softball brawl with softball’s elite.
This one was still very much up for grabs when Mount St. Dominic (7-0) entered its final at bat clinging to a 6-4 lead. The Lions then did what very good teams do when faced with such danger. They pounced.
Grace Perez led off the top of the seventh with a long home run to left field to extend the lead to 7-4. Singles by Olivia Sasfai and Alexandra Cruz preceded a walk to Diana Yturbe and loaded the bases with no outs. Gianna Stern followed with an RBI single to left field, Cruz scored on a wild pitch and Yturbe would be forced home later in the inning when Sydney Rosenkranz drew a walk.
The 10-4 lead looked comfortable with the home team afforded just one more at bat but the Red Devils (4-1), as has been their wont thus far, came out swinging and looking for more.
Katelyn Koep served notice that there would be no capitulation when she led off with a hard sinking liner to right field. But two-time All-Stater Alexis Raphael capped her impressive all-around performance by charging in and making a diving catch.
Again, No. 16 Hunterdon Central kept the gas knob open on its Bunsen burner when No. 9 hitter Celia Totaro, a sophomore, slashed an opposite field single down the left field line. Leadoff hitter Samantha DelHoyo followed with a single to center and when the ball was misplayed, both runners advanced a base. Sarah DeStefano followed with a two-run double, her second double of the game, to shave the deficit to 10-6.
Suddenly that big top of the seventh rally by Mount St. Dominic loomed even larger. But Lions’ ace Sophia Kiseloski did what she did all game when things became uncomfortable. She ratcheted up her own heat, striking out the next batter and inducing a game-ending comebacker.
“I was working on the strike zone a couple innings,” said Kiseloski, who chipped in with a pair of RBI singles and scored a run. “People are going to get good hits. I had to work off the plate and, at times, tried to bring it in on their hands. That was a good lineup.”
As usual, the Mount’s dynamic leadoff hitter, the Villanova-bound Raphael, was relentless. She dropped down three straight bunt singles from the left side of the plate and scored each time. She followed that with a single to right and drew a walk in her fifth trip to the plate. She also stole two bases before Hunterdon Central’s catcher Lea Kosinski gunned her out trying for a third steal in the sixth inning.
“Softball is an offensive game now,” said Stern. “You have to keep scoring. Having ‘Lex at the top of the order is a great advantage for us.”
Raphael opened the game with a bunt single, stole second and scored on Rosenkranz’s one-out single. The inning ended suddenly when Perez ripped a laser to center where the young but savvy Totaro calmly held her ground, snared the liner and fired to second to double up a runner.
The Red Devils struck back in the bottom of the second when Kosinski ripped a leadoff single to center. Nyla Sapia then stepped in with one out and launched a shot well over the fence in left-center field for a two-run home run and a 2-1 Hunterdon Central lead.
Raphael triggered a three-run Mount St. Dominic rally in the third and a two-run rally in the fourth that lifted its lead to 6-2. Kiseloski had an RBI single in each rally, Olivia Sasfai brought a run home with a grounder to the right side in the third and Rosenkranz singled home a run in the fourth.
Down 6-2, Hunterdon Central rallied for two runs in an unforgettable bottom of the fourth. Kosinski led off and reached on an error in the outfield and Isabelle Ricci followed with a single to center. Sapia then took a shot at another big home run but fell just short. And this was where the inning got confusing.
Sapia launched a shot to deep straightaway center field as Olivia Bibbo raced back, dived and it appeared she might have come up with a great catch near the fence. It seemed, though, the ball trickled out of Bibbo’s glove as she hit the ground. Stern confirmed the drop in the post-game.
In the confusion, the home plate umpire made a delayed and undemonstrative safe call. Kosinski eventually scored from second on the play but Ricci, hung up between bases in the confusion, was forced out at second when the throw came back to the infield. Jordan Huber followed with a single to center and Sapia scored all the way from first when the ball was misplayed. That shaved the Mount St. Dominic lead to 6-4 but Hunterdon Central had to feel another run was left out there, and an out to boot.
The two titans would continue taking swings at each other over the final three innings and, as Stern assured, both are now stronger for it.
“Actually I’m pretty impressed how we played and how we did not back down,” said Hunterdon Central coach Kelly Reider. “We never gave up. We knew their level of play and we stepped right up to it.”
Game Notes: Stern, the affable former Cedar Grove mentor, recalled a visit to Hunterdon Central 20 years prior when legendary Pete Fick was at the Red Devils’ helm. “I remember winning that one, too, so I’m 2-0 here,” said Stern. … Can anyone envision an annual Mount St. Dominic vs. Hunterdon Central rivalry budding here? Two great programs deserve each other. The Iron Bowl anyone?
… Kiseloski permitted six runs on nine hits, struck out five and walked none. Mount St. Dominic hammered out 14 hits off three Hunterdon Central pitchers.