Priore Squeezes Watchung Hills Into County Final
Watchung Hills' squeeze play in the 10th wins a thriller in the Somerset County Tournament semifinals.
The Watchung Hills High School softball team had plenty of opportunities to hang its head and give up on Saturday’s Somerset County Tournament semifinals game. But no matter the deficit or the inning, the Warriors never lost focus, and it paid off.
Sophomore Meghan Kovac collected four hits, including a triple, two runs and three RBIs, and freshman Gina Priore came through with a squeeze bunt to plate the winner in the 10th inning, as second-seeded Watchung Hills rallied from three separate deficits and scored a thrilling 9-8 victory over No. 3 Bridgewater-Raritan at Watchung Hills Regional High School.
The Warriors return to the final for the first time since 2004 and will face top-seeded and two-time defending champion Hillsborough at 7:30 p.m. next Saturday night at Nap Torpey Field in Bridgewater.
Down 8-7 headed into the bottom of the 10th inning, Watchung Hills started with Abby Cline on second base, as per the international tiebreaking rule, which went into effect after the 9th inning.
Junior Brooke Nitti led off and drew a walk, before Bridgewater-Raritan recorded an out on a force play at third base off the bat of Steph Huff. Senior Tina Scolaro then singled to center field to tie the game, and she and Huff advanced to second and third, respectively, when the ball got away from an infielder.
That brought up Priore, who bunted the first pitch she saw out in front of the plate, catching the Panthers defense unprepared, and Huff slid home with the game-winner before the defense could react.
“I just wanted to get the bunt down,” Priore said. “I didn’t really think negatively about it. I had confidence in myself and I had confidence in the runner on third to get home. It was a team effort.”
“I didn’t anticipate it (the squeeze) at all,” admitted Bridgewater-Raritan coach Sandy Baranowski, who, along with counterpart Michael D’Alessandro, executed several strategic moves that worked beautifully Saturday. “They completely caught us off guard. It was a great call.”
Watchung Hills trailed 7-5 headed into the bottom of the seventh inning after Bridgewater-Raritan scored three times in the top of the frame. The rally was highlighted by a two-run single by designated hitter Kayla VanValkenberg, who finished with four RBIs.
But Kovac led off the seventh with a single–her fourth hit of the game–and scored on a double by Dana Mertz. McKayla Brady then followed with an RBI single to tie it, before the Panthers escaped further damage after an intentional walk to Jess Gaeta and a pair of clutch infield outs.
Kovac was part of every Warriors rally, as she shook off a slow start to her season and came through repeatedly in Watchung Hills’ biggest game of the year, to date.
Down 3-0, Kovac tripled in the Warriors’ first run in the first inning, and later scored on a single by Gaeta. She then delivered a two-out RBI single in the second inning to cut the deficit to 4-3.
The sophomore shortstop also gave the Warriors their first lead, delivering an RBI single in the fourth inning to plate Priore, who had singled and gone to second on a wild pitch, as Scolaro scored to tie it.
“I have been off to a slow start, but it’s been fine because people in front of me have been hitting well and people behind me have been doing well,” Kovac said. “Everybody in the lineup’s been doing well. Gina’s constantly on base, so for her setting up in front of me it’s fun being able to bat behind her.”
“Meghan is really our anchor,” Head Coach Mike D’Alessandro said. “I know she’s a big-time player, and she’s been struggling a little bit, and she’ll be the first one to tell you that. But we just tell her that every out is closer to her next big game and next big hit and I think she showed that today. Today she was ready to play and she came up big all game.”
For Watchung Hills, which had struggled to score runs lately and had come up short in several games against the better team on its schedule this season, Saturday’s victory not only overcame those stigmas, but was a total team effort. Seven of the Warriors’ nine offensive starters had at least
one hit, and all nine reached base at least once.
“I feel very much that this is what I’ve been trying to get through to these players,” D’Alessandro said. “I told them, even if you haven’t been hot, this might be the time when you’re going to be the hero. Even if you’ve been in a slump, this might be your chance to break out. I told them in the dugout, somebody is going to be a hero in this game. I just didn’t know who it was going to be.”
BRIDGEWATER-RARITAN (9-9) 310-000-300-1 – 8-12-3
WATCHUNG HILLS (12-6) 210-200-200-2 – 9-12-5
2B: WH – Mertz; 3B – Kovac
WP: Cline (8-5). LP: Herman (6-8).