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Mullins, Morristown advance in MCT

MORRISTOWN _ For the last week, Morristown center fielder Tatum Mullins has been in softball bliss.

Mullins returned to the softball diamond this spring after undergoing what every athlete dreads - knee surgery - and has been working her way back into form.

On Saturday, April 21, Mullins capped an exceptional week with a game-winning double in the bottom of the seventh inning in Morris County Tournament preliminary-round action, lifting the 15th-seeded Colonials over No. 18 Whippany Park, 4-3, at Frelinghuysen Middle School.

"There was a lot of pressure being at bat in that situation even though there were no outs," said Mullins, the cleanup batter. "Once I hit the ball, I knew and I got excited."

Runners were on first and second when Mullins, who tore her ACL during a New Jersey Fight game last summer, stepped to the plate. She let the first pitch, a ball, go by before sending the second pitch to left field. Within seconds, her Morristown teammates were on their feet and waiting to congratulate her.

"When I talked to Tatum before she went to bat, I said 'Let's get this done,'" Colonials coach Bob Bruno said. "She had just missed a few innings before."

The "miss" Bruno was referring to was a line drive she hit to third base for the second out of the fifth inning. Wildcats third baseman Paige Walsh made a great play, denying Mullins her second hit of the game. She singled in Morristown's three-run first inning, too, so it was the second time she had multiple hits in the last three games. During that stretch, she went 5 for 8, including a double and a triple, and walked once.

With each game, Mullins, her left knee protected by a bulky brace, gains more confidence. She was the recipient of the game ball for her clutch hit and planned to put it on the shelf above her dresser.

"I was a little nervous coming back after the surgery," Mullins said. "I'm getting better. I'm playing the best I've played all season. I'm proud of myself."

The knee brace can be cumbersome but Mullins tries not to think about it. Otherwise, she feels "it would restrict my playing."

Bruno is pleased with Mullins' progress and put her in a category with Mary Carroll Smith, whom was a standout at Mount St. Dominic and Seton Hall University.

"I've seen only one better outfielder in my 40 years coaching," Bruno said. "That was Mary Carroll Smith. Tatum is tremendous and she's worked hard to become a better hitter. Her shoulder has been bothering her, too, but she never complains."

If there was another game ball to award, it likely would have gone to pitcher Molly Murphy, who held Whippany Park to three hits. Murphy struck out four and walked one. She helped her cause by slugging an RBI double in the first inning. Chloe Saia also had a solid game, rapping out two hits and knocking in a run for the Colonials (5-3).

Whippany Park scored three runs in the top of the seventh inning to knot the score, 3-3. With two outs, Alexa Malet laced a two-run single down the right-field line. A run-producing triple to right field by Walsh ensued.

"I was hoping someone would drive a ball," Wildcats coach Todd Callaghan said. "We needed to find some gaps. We've been too inconsistent. A bad inning here or there. We're trying to get to the point where it doesn't affect us too much. It's still a work in progress."

The late comeback by Whippany Park had some of the Colonials, who will face second-seeded Chatham in the first round, on edge. However, Mullins and her teammates were determined to prevail.

"We didn't want to get too down after Whippany Park scored," Mullins said. "We had to keep our energy up and stay positive. If one head goes down, everyone's goes down."

She considered her decisive double "kind of fun" yet felt Morristown could have put up more runs earlier. The Colonials loaded the bases in the second inning and left eight runners stranded.

"It shouldn't have come to that," Mullen said. "We should have done better at the beginning of the game. If we did, we wouldn't have been in this situation."

***PHOTO GALLERY BELOW***

Red Hawks are top seed for MCT softball

DOVER _ Parsippany has been unfazed by its Morris County Softball Tournament seedings in recent years.

Whether the Red Hawks fell into the teens, the top 10 or were the seventh seed, like they were in 2017 when they claimed their first MCT title since 1986, they have the same intent. The objective is to play smart softball and battle through the bracket.

On Tuesday, April 17, Parsippany, undefeated after seven games and eager to defend its championship, was voted the top seed for the 2018 MCT. Although coach Greg Cleary may have been elated, he held his emotions in.

"We've had the same approach for the last four years since we've been competitive," Cleary said. "It we play our best, we can beat anybody. If we don't play well, we can lose to anyone. I like to stay on an even keel and I have the players think that way, too.

"I don't feel that there's a target on our backs because of being the top seed. It's nice to be recognized. It's cool. We used to hand in our uniforms in mid-May. Now we're playing under the lights. We're in the county or sectional finals.It takes a lot of hard work. We'd like to keep things going."

Once-beaten Chatham is the second seed followed by Jefferson. Rounding out the first 10 are Mendham (4), Hanover Park (5), Mount Olive (6), Randolph (7), Roxbury (8), Kinnelon (9) and Pequannock (10). Last year's runner-up, Morris Knolls, is the 11th seed in the 26-team tournament.

Preliminary-round games must be played by Saturday, April 21. First-round matchups must be completed by Wednesday, April 25. Quarterfinals are slated on or before Saturday, April 28.

Landing Park will be the site of the semifinals on Saturday, May 5 at 5 and 7 p.m. The final is scheduled for Wednesday, May 9 at 7 p.m., also at Landing Park.

Preliminary and first rounds

Winner of Morris Hills (17) at Montville (16) at Parsippany (1)

Winner of Whippany Park (18) at Morristown (15) at Chatham (2)

Winner of Morris Tech (19) at Butler (14) at Jefferson (3)

Winner of Parsippany Hills (20) at Morris Catholic (13) at Mendham (4)

Winner of Dover (21) at Madison (12) at Hanover Park (5)

Winner of West Morris (22) at Morris Knolls (11) at Mount Olive (6)

Winner of Morristown-Beard (23) at Pequannock (10) at winner of Mountain Lakes (26) at Randolph (7)

Winner of Villa Walsh (24) at Kinnelon (9) at winner of Boonton (25) at Roxbury (8)

Three HRs boost Parsippany

PARSIPPANY _ Greg Cleary isn't concerned very much about what Jenna Devens does in the batter's box.

Cleary, of course, will take whatever offensive contributions he can get from Devens, Parsippany's freshman right-handed pitcher.

Devens fired a three-hitter and struck out 12 when the Red Hawks defeated Mendham, hot off a victory over Chatham, 12-2, on Thursday, April 12. She also had a pair of home runs, one of them in the eight-run fourth inning, amd knocked in five runs.

The win enabled Parsippany to remain undefeated after six games. A day later, the Red Hawks topped Butler 10-9 to send their record to 7-0. On Tuesday, April 17, they were voted the top seed for the Morris County Softball Tournament.

"Hitting is secondary for Jenna," Cleary said. "I want her to be as solid as she can be in the circle. Anything she does at the plate is an added bonus."

Devens, seventh in the batting order, said she has never had two home runs in a game. She has, however, hit two in the same day when playing in summer tournaments.

The first home run Devens hit was a grand slam in the fourth inning and it gave Parsippany a 4-2 lead. It came off a 1-1 pitch and was a line drive to center field, clearing the 198-foot fence. Lilianna Vidal walked and Alivia Mercuro and Tori Freire singled to set the stage for Devens' blast.

"I've been in a little slump," Devens said. "I had a few base hits but I was struggling. I was striking out and popping up. I'm happy about having two home runs. Mendham was winning 2-0 and I was a little worried. I felt we'd come back. I had a feeling."

Parsippany, the defending MCT champion, roared back in the fourth inning. Eleven hitters took their turns in the batter's box and rapped out six hits. Vidal, the cleanup hitter, also homered for the Red Hawks in the fourth inning. The ball she slugged over the fence came off a 1-1 offering and put Parsippany in front, 8-2. The inning also featured a double by Rachel Volarich and a squeeze bunt by Claudia Bennett (4 for 4, 2 2Bs, 2 RBIs).

"We just woke up," said Red Hawks center fielder Julia Vincent (3 for 4, RBI). "We got aggressive. We wanted it more."

In the fifth inning, Parsippany, which sometimes has 6 a.m. batting practices on game days, tacked on three more runs. Devens had a solo homer in that inning, once again sending the ball to center field. Bennett had her fourth hit, an RBI single to left field. Vincent drove in a run with a hard-hit base hit off the second baseman's glove. Devens' single in the sixth inning plated the Red Hawks' last run and ended the game.

Cleary noted that the home runs were line drives and not towering blasts.

"I liked that they were line drives that left the park," he said. "I'm big on that approach. When there are high strikes, you need to change your swing. It's like a plane landing, not taking off."

An error and a single by Julia Buckley provided Mendham with its two runs in the second inning.

"We're much more competitive than this," Mendham coach Lori Welles said. "We made some mistakes and Parsippany capitalized. Parsippany hits very well There are great hitters in their lineup. You have to be aware of all of them."

The Red Hawks are intent on having a successful season and defending their Morris County Tournament title despite losing shortstop Luisa Barone (hip surgery). 

"We want to do it again," Vincent said. "We have the fire."

Chatham nips Falcons; Hine gets 100th hit

CHATHAM _ Sarah McCabe isn't known for burning up the basepaths.

So, when Chatham needed to score to snap a deadlock late in a game against Jefferson, McCabe, a junior first baseman, relied on other extremely valuable attributes to score what proved to be the decisive run in a 3-2 victory over Jefferson on Wednesday, April 4.

McCabe used a combination of determination and desire to score from third base on Kaitlin Pinaire's groundball in the bottom half of the sixth inning.

"My coach told me I'd be going on any groundball except one to the pitcher," McCabe said. "I had to be aggressive."

McCabe, who can now add fearless to her list of talents, headed home when the ball was hit toward third and slid in, just beating the tag.

"In that situation, we had a contact play on," Cougars coach Brian Figueiredo said. "We wanted to make them make a play. The third baseman obviously had to field the ball and throw it down the line with the runner going home. Jefferson had wrested momentum from us in the top of the inning. Sarah just went in there hard and scored."

The Falcons had evened the score, 2-2, when a ball hit to the outfield was dropped, allowing both runs to score. Katie DeBell hit the ball, which traveled a long way, considering the ball was blowing in at Shunpike Field. Prior to that, Aly Hine doubled to right-center field with two outs to get things going. The double, off a full-count offering, was her second of the game and the 100th of her career. An error ensued, putting runners on first and third.

"We didn't get down when they scored the two runs," said Anna Lengner, Chatham's junior pitcher. "We were hitting pretty well. I thought we could come back. Sarah's a smart baserunner. She knew what to do."

Lengner had a solid outing, allowing five hits and striking out nine. She relied heavily on her curveball which induced groundballs and strikes. The brisk winds that blew in toward homeplate, she said, actually worked in her favor.

"I think it helped me and the defense," Lengner said. "The ball really didn't go very far."

Figueiredo agreed. Of course, Jefferson dealt with the same conditions.

"We talked about the wind when we got here," he said. "Someone would have to crush the ball to get it over someone's head. Anna did a good job with it."

Chatham scored its first two runs in the third inning. Lengner and Julia Yukniewicz each had an RBI single with two outs.

"It's an old saying but it's true that two-out hits win games," Figueiredo said. "It may be cliche. I probably say it five or six times per game. To do that is enormous for us."

The Cougars got in more early season games than most teams thanks to turf fields in town. In addition to Shunpike, they played at Lum Avenue Fields.

As of April 10, Chatham was 6-1. The Cougars won their first six games before falling to Mendham, 3-1.  

Hine was the only player to get two hits in the game. She hoped to reach the milestone last season but it didn't happen.

"I'm relieved honestly," Hine said. "I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. I'm relaxed and comfortable now. I've got a new mindset."

***PHOTO GALLERY BELOW***

Huland El, Virginia dance into second round

PISCATAWAY _ The goals are to "keep the ball bouncing, make things shake," said Randolph native Aliyah Huland El when discussing Virginia's desire to extend its season as long as possible.

Huland El, a senior guard, and the 10th-seeded Cavaliers triumphed in their first-round NCAA game, defeating No. 7 California, 68-62, on Friday, March 16 at 5 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C.

Virginia (19-13) is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010 so Huland El and her teammates, including fellow Jerseyans Jocelyn Willoughby and Lauren Moses, are eager to make an impact.

"Honestly, we've worked so hard for this, especially the seniors," said Huland El, who scored the 1,000th point of her collegiate career on Feb. 1 versus Louisville. "To say we're going dancing... To make history... The dream has come to fruition. We'll do our best to make things happen."

The team, Huland El said, had a plan from the start of the season and that was to gain a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

"We hope to win a few games," she said. "We're going to keep fighting. We were in shock at first but we are ready."

Huland El, one of three Virginia players in double figures with 12 in the NCAA opener, has come up with some big offensive performances of late, one of them a 19-point showing against Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament. In the ACC quarterfinals, she scored 13 points against Notre Dame. Also notable were the 21 points Huland El had in win over Georgia Tech in late January. She is averaging 10.1 points and has started 27-of-32 games.

When Virginia visited Rutgers early in the season, Huland El, who aspires to be a pediatrician, was thrilled to be in her home state and to play before family and friends. However, in a span of 1:07 in the first quarter, Huland El was charged with two fouls and was removed from the game. She saw several more stints on the hardwood but 3:37 into the third quarter, Huland El was whistled for her third foul. She ended with four points and four rebounds.

"I'm usually not in foul trouble," Huland El said after the Dec. 4 game at RU. "My team needs me on the floor. I'm disappointed in my thought process. I'm more disciplined than what I showed. I shortchanged the team in the long run. Still, being here is nice. It's good to be home. I'm on home turf, I guess. A lot of my Jersey family came to the game."

While at Virginia, Huland El learned much, mainly about "stretching myself as an individual and dealing with and overcoming adversity, whether it involved school, basketball or was people related."

Her goal was to start as a freshman but her role was being the sixth or seventh player. Huland El adapted and made the best of it, bringing energy.

"I quickly found out starting isn't everything," Huland El said. "What makes a difference is who's in at the end and who makes an impression throughout the game."

Huland El, the all-time leading scorer in girls high school basketball in Morris County with 2,286 points, hopes to play overseas when her collegiate career comes to a close. She'll have to wait until June or July to find out if teams have an interest.

"I'll play if there's a good, viable financially sound option," she said. "It would be a great experience. I'd love to keep playing."

***PHOTO GALLERY FROM DEC. 2, 2017 VIRGINIA AT RUTGERS GAME BELOW***

Mustangs' "great season" comes to an end

MONTVILLE _ A first-ever appearance in the sectional semifinals. Wins over Chatham, Morris Catholic, High Point, Jefferson, West Morris, Morris Knolls and Dayton. A school-record 22 victories.

In a week or two, Montville, saddened by a season-ending 54-42 loss to Old Tappan in North Jersey Section 1, Group III, no doubt, will look back and realize all that it has accomplished. The banner in the gym may not tell tales of titles - yet - but, one day in the near future, it most likely will.

"It's been a great season," Mustangs sophomore guard Emma Wax said. "We did so much. We had a fantastic senior class. I'm upset it's over."

Wax, whose 19 points led second-seeded Montville versus third-seeded Old Tappan, indicated why she and her teammates extended their season so far and toppled some highly regarded teams along the way.

"We love each other and bonded well," she said. "We picked each other up. There was a lot of positivity."

All of those elements were evident in the Mustangs' finale along with determination and the desire to fight until the last second. Montville (22-5) fell behind 15-7 in the first quarter but came within four, 26-22, at halftime as Wax and Amanda Gorski scored five points apiece.

The Mustangs trailed 38-30 at the end of three periods and cut the deficit to five, 40-35, midway through the fourth quarter. After that, Montville's shots did not fall. Old Tappan went 14 for 14 at the free throw line over the last three minutes. Montville got its last two baskets, both layups, over the final 31.1 seconds.

"I felt like we were in it the whole game," Mustangs coach Derek Lynn said. "My girls kept battling. My coaching staff never felt we were out of it because of the heart they showed throughout. We started out slowly and got back into it. We did that against Ramapo, too. We found our way through things early on and eventually found a flaw on offense."

Lynn noted that "the bench was really into the game" and that brought more energy into the nearly packed gym as did the enthusiastic student cheering section. The show of support by the fans certainly was another indicator of Montville's success.

Coming into the game, the Mustangs knew they'd have to take charge on the defensive boards to control Old Tappan, a team that relies heavily on second opportunities. However, Old Tappan, which had three players score in double figures, still got a good number of putbacks. Noelle Gonzalez topped the visitors with 16 points.

"There were a few loose balls. Some tipped passes," Lynn said. "Old Tappan is tough, physical and creates opportunities."

Five Montville seniors will graduate, including Jordan Strickland and Amanda Gorski. Gorski finished with 14 points and Strickland dropped in a layup with seven seconds remaining to complete the Mustangs' scoring.

"We lost by 12 but it doesn't show how hard we fought," Wax said. "We always give our best. We beat teams that we've never beaten this season. That means we can only keep getting better."

Morris Knolls loses heartbreaker

DENVILLE _ After falling behind 15-8 in the first quarter of its North Jersey Section 1, Group IV quarterfinal versus Ridgewood, Morris Knolls used exceptional man-to-man defense to limit the Maroons to four points over the next 16 minutes.

The top-notch defensive effort enabled the Golden Eagles to gain a three-point edge going into the closing quarter. It was so exceptional that the Morris Knolls scorekeeper put a heart around the zero in the scorebook that represented Ridgewood's points in the third period. The Maroons, no doubt, were upset after missing six free throws.

Suddenly, that slim lead disappeared. With 15.3 seconds left, junior forward Chloe Lennon made a close-range field goal to put fifth-seeded Ridgewood in control 33-32 and, soon after, the visitors reveled in a 35-32 victory over the No. 4 Golden Eagles.

"Ridgewood made a few shots in the fourth quarter that didn't drop in the second and third," Morris Knolls coach Rob Moore said. "It was a bounce here. A bounce there. We made some shots. We missed some shots. Our girls played hard. They played well. Our seniors led. They did all I asked them to do."

The Golden Eagles (16-10) seemed stunned and rightfully so because the momentum had shifted so markedly to their side. Outscored 16-10 in the fourth quarter, Morris Knolls last led 32-31 when Catt Reyes fired in an eight-foot jumper with 36.5 seconds remaining.

"There were little mistakes that shouldn't have happened," said Reyes, one of Morris Knolls' four seniors.

"We played our hearts out," another senior, Christi Conroy, said. "We couldn't ask for a better way to finish."

Morris Knolls, whose top scorer was Vanessa Elliott with 12 points, made it evident that it didnt want its season to end. The Golden Eagles hustled. They rebounded. A shot at 3.3 seconds did not fall.

For Lennon, nicknamed "Happy Feet" for moving her feet too much when they need to be stationary, the game-winning putback meant a lot. She may be shaking the endearing yet sometimes costly habit.

"The nickname's just a joke," Lennon said. "I've been working on my footwork. I channeled it when I needed to."

Maroons coach Karen Keyes was pleased that Lennon remained calm when the opportunity to score at a critical time arose. Keyes also praised her team for recovering from the struggles it experienced in the second and third quarters.

"We just went cold, especially in the third quarter," Keyes said. "When it came to crunch time, we were able to score down the stretch. Our motto is 'Trust in each other' and we did that. We adapted and were able to score."

For Morris Knolls, the loss, of course, stung.

Carli Van Riper, a senior, no doubt, will have the memory of the Golden Eagles holding Ridgewood scoreless in the third quarter. She'll also remember the camaraderie Morris Knolls had throughout a season in which it endured despite several injuries.

"There was a lot of energy," Van Riper said of the third quarter.

Elliott, the fourth senior, has much to take away from her high school basketball career.

"I'll remember how hard we played for each other, no matter what the result," Elliott said. "We all contributed. We got through some setbacks. I couldn't ask for more."

Conroy finished with eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks. Emily Mitarotonda added six points. Brielle Sharry topped the Maroons with 11 points, including eight in the first quarter. Sharry had three 3-pointers.

Ridgewood moves on and will meet West Orange, which ousted top-seeded Morristown, in a sectional semifinal.

***PHOTO GALLERY BELOW*** 

Defense, steals propel Villa Walsh

MORRISTOWN _ Stifling defense that produces steals has been Villa Walsh's mainstay this season.

The Vikings, of course, continued with that formula for success, using man-to-man full-court pressure to rattle 10th-seeded St. Mary of Rutherford en route to a 70-23 victory in its Non-Public North B state tournament first-round game on Tuesday, Feb. 27.

"Our defense is the biggest part of our game," said junior forward Mary Cate McGlone, whose 14 point and 6 steals paced Villa Walsh. "We work hard on running different defenses. We switch in and out of them and follow up on the other end as well."

Villa Walsh, seeded seventh, had a season-high 29 steals to go along with a season-high amount of points. The Vikings (14-11) went up 22-9 in the first quarter led by McGlone and Kate Gehringer, who had eight points apiece. The lead was gained despite some opening-round jitters.

"The girls were a bit nervous out of the chute," Villa Walsh coach Van Johnson said. "We were missing easy shots. Once we settled down, everything went well."

And, the defense wasn't all that was impressive. In addition to McGlone, Caroline Dolan and Gehringer reached double figures, scoring 12 and 10 points, respectively. Mary Walsh added seven. Walsh and Michelle Zychowski had five steals apiece for the Vikings (14-11). The junior varsity players entered the game in the fourth period and put up 19 points which pleased Johnson.

McGlone and Johnson both felt that the second period, in which Villa Walsh outscored St. Mary 17-2 was critical and enabled it to open a wide gap going into halftime.

"We came out strong in the second quarter," McGlone said. "Sometimes, the first quarter is a rough patch for us. In the second quarter, we began to play really well and went all out for the whole game."

The Vikings, slated to meet the No. 2 seed, Hudson Catholic, in the quarterfinals on Thursday, March 1 at 5:30 p.m., swiped pass after pass and interrupted the flow of the Gaels' offense.

"We work really hard for them," McGlone said of the steals. "We use a lot of trap defenses and that helps."

The game brought second-year coach St. Mary coach Jamie LoBue back to a familiar place. LoBue, a graduate of West Morris High School, where she played basketball, served as a junior varsity and assistant coach at Villa Walsh for six years.

"It was a little weird," said McGlone of LoBue being on the other side. "It was weird hearning her yelling on the sideline. It takes you back."

St. Mary (8-16) was paced by Jensen Kraft's 15 points and four rebounds.

Villa Walsh is 5-2 over its last seven games. Its two losses in that span were to Pope John by two points and Mount St. Mary by seven.

Hudson Catholic will pose a major challenge but the Vikings are certain they will be prepared.

"We're facing a very good team," Johnson said. "My hope is we execute as well as we did against St. Mary."

McGlone is thinking upset. She noted that the sophomores have been making significant contributions in recent games.

"We have some pretty big wins," McGlone said. "This team is like a family. We have good chemistry. There's a sense of community. Hudson Catholic will be tough but our team never gives up, even if we're down by 15 or 20."

***PHOTO GALLERY BELOW***

Chatham topples Colonials for MCT title

RANDOLPH _ Shortly after the final buzzer sounded signaling the end of the Morris County Tournament final and sending Chatham into a frenzied celebration, coach Joe Gaba's cell phone received a deluge of text messages.

Among those checking in immediately and sending congratulatory texts were former players Amanda Berntsen, Grace Conroy, Cassie Falone, Caitlyn Kuntz, Kelsey and Kendall Davies and Liz Ford. Several of them had experienced the thrill of playing in MCT title games when the Cougars were runners-up from 2010-2012.

On Feb. 23, 2018 - a date long to be remembered in Chatham High School sports history - the Cougars, fueled by Veronica Kelly's 13 points, left the County College of Morris gymnasium as proud champions following a 40-31 victory over top-seeded Morristown.

Finally, the Cougars, perenially contenders in the conference, county and state, were holding and showing off the championship plaque that represented their first MCT crown. And, if one looked closely, they'd see the fingerprints of the players who came before them on the plaque. Clearly, they were a part of this, too.

"Coach Gaba and Chatham have been chasing this for 20-something years," said Kelly, named the tournament MVP. "It's crazy. Just insane. It hasn't set in yet. I know I feel excited. I'm happy. Really happy. We knew we could do it."

Reasons for the elation are many. Third-seeded Chatham (18-7) suffered losses to Morristown this season by 10 and five points, respectively, in NJAC-United Division matchups this season. Kelly and the other seniors had never beaten the Colonials, who claimed the MCT title in 2017. Last year, the Colonials triumphed three times by double digits.

The Cougars held few leads over Morristown in the past and never late in a game. They either fell behind early or were even at halftime before the Colonials took charge. So, there a little anxiety at halftime at CCM when Chatham was up by only one, 16-15, yet it had the mindset required to prevail. The Cougars benefited from clashing with Rumson-Fair Haven, University, Hunterdon Central, Oak Knoll, Bayonne, Montville, West Morris Morris Catholic and Jefferson.

"What they did to win this championship... We were prepared," Gaba said. "The schedule in the conference and the counties was tough. We were tested each and every night. I can't say enough about these girls. Morristown is so aggressive. They take you out of your offense. I knew it would be a dogfight and it was. It came down to execution and we were a little better."

Both teams had to cope with an injury or illness to a starting player. Morristown certainly missed Kate Kolb, who amassed 34 points and asserted herself inside in the previous two MCT games. Kolb was not herself due to a sprained ankle and saw limited action, scoring only three points. The Cougars did not have a full-strength Hannah Kelly, who was getting over an illness. Tess Ford, a freshman, started in her place. The younger Kelly did play and contributed five points.

The championship, along with this entire season, has been savored by Chatham senior Chloe Blanc, who sat out much of last season after knee surgery.

The main objective versus Morristown was "to take the game minute by minute," according to Kelly.

"We couldn't let them get a big lead," Kelly said. "We had to win more minutes than them. We couldn't play for 32 minutes and try to win all of them. That was unrealistic."

"We have not played from the front against them," Gaba noted. "We had to get a little separation, maybe six points or so, and we had to put pressure on them and defend the other end of the floor."

Chatham, the lone Morris County team to defeat Morristown this season, didn't open a huge gap in the third period. Two minutes and 34 seconds after halftime, Kelly fired in the second of her three 3-pointers, connecting from the right side, to put the Cougars on top, 23-18. Up 25-22, Chatham closed out the third quarter with a field goal by Maddie Hartnett at 54.3 seconds and went ahead by five again.

Twice in the frenzied fourth quarter, the Cougars led by seven. Nicole Ferrara netted a 3-pointer 56 seconds into the closing period to bring Morristown within four, 29-25. From there, Chatham commenced a nine-point run, highlighted by Kelly's five points, and took command, 38-25, with 47.3 seconds remaining. The Cougars made 8-of-10 free throws in the fourth quarter, including 6 of 6 over the last 1:26.

"It feels great that we were able to beat Morristown," said Camryn Davies, one of three Chatham seniors. "Everyone was involved. We were super pumped up. We didn't turn the ball over as much as we did in the other games. We played four of us against six defenders to get ready for Morristown's ball pressure. On defense, we didn't give up easy looks. We were together. We played as one."

Morristown, which received 11 points from Elizabeth Strambi, simply did not put forth its best effort.

"Chatham was the better team tonight," Colonials coach Jim Pisciotto said. "We picked a bad day to have an off game. I am proud of our girls for all they accomplished this year. We took our best shot and won the conference. When you are No. 1, you only have one place to go. Our girls were poised and executed all year. I'm very proud of my team." 

ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM

Taylor Langan, Jefferson

Danielle Mills, Morris Catholic

Kate Kolb, Morristown

Elizabeth Strambi, Morristown

Michaela Ford, Chatham

Veronica Kelly, Chatham - MVP 

***PHOTO GALLERY BELOW***

Pittas impressed by marathon experience

NEW YORK _ As a first-time participant in the New York City Marathon, Despina Pittas considered every millisecond a highlight.

Pittas, a wraparound clinician at Boonton High School, reeled off moment after memorable moment. The start of the marathon in Staten Island... Crossing the Verrazano Bridge... The bands in Brooklyn... Her family members and strangers hugging her and friends cheering her on in Queens... The struggles she endured over the last 2.2 miles...

"It was all so amazing," said Pittas, who completed the 26.2-mile race in 5:50.47 on Nov. 5, 2017. "It's tough to pick out one thing. Maybe Brooklyn, with all of the bands on the corners, was the best part. It was like a big party. It was definitely the most festive part of the marathon."

Pittas decided to run the "unforgettable race" after witnessing her cousin, Vicki Grapsas, do it three years ago.

"I loved the whole atmosphere," Pittas said. "The fact that my cousin could run more than 26 miles impressed me. It was so inspiring. I thought 'Can I do it?' I wanted to try."

So, Pittas, no stranger to 5Ks, 10Ks and half marathons, began preparing for the NYC Marathon in May of 2016, just two months after the birth of her daughter, Elli. Not long after, she suffered a stress fracture to her tibia and suspended training until Sept. 1. Pittas had two months to prepare but her orthopedist advised her that "it wasn't time for 20 miles."

Pittas, disappointed, set her sights on 2017. She entered the lottery and gained one of the coveted spots. She trained on the streets of Morristown and ran on Patriots Path. Pittas often ran 18 miles from Morristown to Chatham and back.

Prior to half marathons in Brooklyn, New York City and Asbury Park, she considered herself "a runner, not a racer," yet made herself into one. Pittas thought back to the years after college when she returned to running to cope with the stress of teaching at Jamesburg Prison, a maximum security facility.

"I ran because it felt good," she recalled. "It was for fun. A friend influenced me to do a half marathon and that's when I fell in love with racing. I loved everything about it."

While growing up in Randolph, Pittas, a talented athlete, ran for St. Andrews Greek Orthodox Church Youth Organization. She also competed in basketball, softball and swimming for the church organization or recreation programs. Pittas was a sprinter for the Randolph High School track team. Her father, James, taught her mental toughness.

That mental toughness enabled her to persevere during the NYC Marathon last fall. Pittas did not hit "the wall" at the 20th mile. The 24th mile was the toughest. It was there that Pittas, who would like to run the Marine Corps Marathon, began to feel intense pain but she kept her legs going.

"I considered walking but I didn't do it," said Pittas, a resident of Morristown. "I came to run. Finishing is one of my greatest accomplishments. It was an amazing feeling."

For three days after the marathon, Pittas' entire body ached.

"I could barely get up the stairs. It was tough to move," Pittas said. "The mental part trumped the physical. Pain really is weakness leaving your body. Fortunately, I had that toughness."

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