ROXBURY _ Claudia Bennett and the majority of her Parsippany softball teammates will see the world through a euphoric haze for awhile.
Twenty minutes after the Red Hawks put the finishing touches on their 8-5 victory over top-seeded Morris Knolls in the 2017 Morris County Tournament final to gain their first-ever title, Bennett could not fathom what had been accomplished. She expected the feeling to linger.
"This is pretty surreal," said Bennett, the junior left fielder whose two-run home run in the five-run third inning was one of many highlights for seventh-seeded Parsippany. "I can't believe we just actually won. I'll have to wait for it to sink in. We just played our normal game. We talked about being focused. Being perfect has been our motto for the last few games."
Parsippany (15-5) rode the right arm of senior ace Caitlin Brennan, a nine-hit attack that featured Alivia Mercuro's five RBIs and flawless defense into the history books on Wednesday, May 10 at Landing Park. Toppling the powerful Golden Eagles was no easy feat and that, too, added to the Red Hawks' amazement. The last time Parsippany made it to the MCT title game was in 1986 and it fell to Mendham, 1-0.
"This is incredible. Really incredible," said slick-fielding shortstop Luisa Barone. "We wanted this and now we've got it. We felt confident but we couldn't be cocky. Morris Knolls is a very, very respectable team."
The Red Hawks, who garnered sectional crowns in 2015 and 2016, went to work immediately. Barone opened the game with a single up the middle and, with two outs, scored on a base hit, the 100th hit of Mercuro's career. The Golden Eagles tied it, 1-1, in the lower half of the first inning on Morgan DeLoreto's single and went up, 2-1, in the bottom of the second on two-out RBI singles by Jess Heitmann and Carley Mahan.
In the third inning, Parsippany, wearing new uniforms that coach Greg Cleary handed out shortly before his players boarded the bus, sent eight batters to the plate. Mercuro, the cleanup hitter, doubled with the bases loaded off a 1-2 offering by Brooke Wiarda, knocking in three runs. Two batters later, Bennett's blast, her first homer this season, cleared the fence in left field and put the Red Hawks in front, 6-3.
The lead enabled Brennan, named the most valuable player, to fully settle in. She was determined to win for her father, Dermot, a Navy petty officer first class, who was in Mississippi training for a 10-month deployment. Dermot Brennan watched the entire game on a YouTube live stream thanks to Rich Leitner, whose daughter, Meg, plays center field. Caitlin talked to her dad shortly after the game.
"Alivia has been on fire and the home run by Claudia..." Brennan said. "We call Alivia 'Chippy' because she has always gotten us runs. She chips away and gets runs when we need them."
Morris Knolls (16-3) pulled within two runs, 6-4, on Meaghan Thompson's run-producing double in the third inning. Parsippany's seventh run was scored in the fifth inning on Mercuro's run-producing base hit to left-center field. In the sixth, Tori Freire's single, a sacrifice bunt and an error enabled the Red Hawks to put across their eighth run.
Brennan (6 strikeouts, 2 walks, 11 hits allowed) escaped a two-out, two-runners-on jam in the sixth with a strikeout. The seventh inning was even more tense as Morgan DeLoreto knocked in a run with a double to left field. Brennan then threw seven balls in a row, walking Thompson and taking the next batter to 3-0 before coming back and sealing one of the most important victories in the history of the softball program with a strikeout.
"I've got to be real. I got really nervous, of course, at the end," said Brennan, whose screwball was potent. "This was for the championship. I did what I had to do. Winning tonight is amazing. I felt the energy after we got the first few runs. We're the underdog and we were pumped. I think Morris Knolls said something with their body language. It was like 'Why is this happening?'"
Cleary was going to call a timeout to speak with Brennan yet reconsidered. Mercuro was certain Brennan would come through.
"Caitlin always has moments like that," Cleary said. "She gave me a look that told me to stay put. She also put her hand up. That meant 'No, I've got this.' Caitlin went from a nervous, wild freshman to the leader of this program. I've never been prouder of an athlete."
"I've seen this before but Caitlin, even though she was getting agitated, was going to get out of it," Mercuro said. "Caitlin is fantastic. I trusted her in that situation. I will always trust her."
Keith Heinemann, coach of Morris Knolls, said Parsippany deserved to win.
"We were outplayed, outscored, outpitched, outcoached," he said. "It all starts with me. (Cleary) was a better coach than I was."
Mercuro credited Cleary with getting the team ready and inspiring them. On the back of the locker room door is a poster listing team goals, including an MCT title. Another challenges the Red Hawks to distinguish themselves from the 25 other teams in the county and asks 'How are you going to be different?'"
"I'm happy for our coach," Mercuro said. "He wanted this for us. The tournament has been awesome. We've been working on our execution, to hitting where people aren't. There's nothing better than when everything goes your way. My heart was pumping a million miles an hour for the entire game. The best games are when you have to be on your toes all the time, when you can't relax from the first pitch to the last."
"This is so cool," Cleary said. "It's a first. It's been a special night."
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