ROXBURY _ Annalee Smith, perturbed by her lack of hitting, decided, literally and figuratively, to take the gloves off.
The phrase means to not hold anything back and that's exactly the approach that Smith, Mount Olive's catcher, decided she had to take with two outs, the score tied and a runner on first base in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Smith, admittedly superstitious, gripped her bat with her bare hands and ripped a first-pitch offering down the third-base line to knock in pinch runner Brianna Segnello with the winning run when the sixth-seeded Marauders edged seventh-seeded Randolph 3-2 in a Morris County Tournament semifinal at Landing Park on Saturday, May 5.
"I was definitely down on myself at that point," Smith said of the way she felt before her fourth trip to the plate. "I had to take my batting gloves off. It was down to the wire. I had nothing to lose. I'm really superstitious. I had three bad at-bats in this game. I wasn't seeing the ball well. I went up and I was going to swing at the pitch that was right. A lot of times, it's the first pitch because they're coming right after you.
"I cleared my head and looked at my coach. He said 'Calm down. Deep breath.'"
Smith's hit was only the fifth Mount Olive (12-4) managed off Rams sophomore ace Amanda Flynn, who recorded 13 strikeouts. After giving up a two-run single to Alyssa Borozan in the first inning, Flynn retired 11 of the next 12 batters. The sophomore right-hander with the effective riser went on another streak after walking Julia Chang in the fourth inning, putting down 11-of -12 hitters again. A walk prevented it from being 12 of 12. During that stretch, Flynn fanned six batters.
That's exactly why Smith had to make the most of her fourth time up. Previously, Smith, the cleanup hitter, struck out twice and was out on a popup. She'd had enough and went to the plate thinking only of making an impact. With one out in the eighth, Izzy Hendrickson gained first on an error and Mount Olive coach Bill Romano called on Segnello to run. Smith's double down the line ensued and Romano sent Segnello home. Seconds later, Mount Olive's dugout emptied and the Marauders reveled in their extra-innings victory.
"I'm really happy for our four seniors," said Romano, referring to Smith, Borozan, Hendrickson and Chang. "They started for us since they were freshmen and worked so hard to get here. It was a great game. Annalee's been solid all year. She had home runs when she was younger but is now a line-drive hitter. She told me 'We got this' before the bottom of the eighth inning."
As for the batting gloves, they've been lucky and not so lucky. Smith wore them for a 5-for-5, three-RBI effort versus Mendham. They were on for dismal performances (a combined 0 for 7) against Newton and Montgomery. Gloveless when Mount Olive clashed with West Morris, Smith, headed to Susquehanna where she will play field hockey, drove in three runs.
"Annalee was getting down on herself," Borozan said. "She told me 'I'm doing nothing' and I told her she'd be fine and that she'd hit. She got up and yanked it down third. I had tears in my eyes."
Borozan, the winning pitcher, is also superstitious. She wears orange Crocs - the right one with a flower in it and the left one with a small baseball attached - that she's had since sophomore year to games. Her Nike cleats, she said, "are falling apart at the seams" yet she continues to lace them up. The sole is coming off of one of them and there's a hole from her dragging her right foot when she pitches. Still, Borozan (four hits allowed, two strikeouts) believes they are magic. Perhaps it's the two-feet-and-a-heart charm, in memory of her grandfather, that makes them special.
Being in the semifinals for the first time in 10 years was a thrill for Borozan, especially because it provided another memory with her teammates. Many of them have been together since the age of 8 when they played on a travel team. In 2012, many of the girls traveled to the Babe Ruth 12U World Series, where they finished third. Now they'll vie for the MCT title on Wednesday, May 9 at the same site. Mount Olive is seeking its third championship. The Marauders' last MCT crown was attained in 1996.
"I have no words. No words," Borozan said. "It's amazing. We haven't been this far in many, many years. It was a full-team effort."
Mount Olive's first three batters of the game got it off to a fast start. Lindsey Walter, the Marauders' leadoff batter, had a perfect bunt single, the ball spinning and coming to rest in a hole. Hendrickson singled up the middle off a full-count pitch before Borozan stepped into the box and lashed a two-run base hit to right field. A passed ball enabled Borozan to take second. However, Flynn struck out the next three batters to escape a tense situation.
Randolph evened the score, 2-2, with three hits in the fourth inning. Mailynn Soto reached on a bunt. Michelle McMillan doubled Soto in and Flynn doubled off the fence in right-center field to plate the second run. Borozan got out of the jam with two flyouts and a strikeout.
"I knew Randolph wasn't going down without a fight," Borozan said. "They're a good-hitting team. I just wanted to stop the bleeding. End it. Cut it off. We needed to recover and recuperate. I figured we'd come back and hit."
There was no shortage of stellar defensive play in the first game. For the second out of the second inning, the Rams' McMillan made a sliding catch in shallow center field.
Walter, Mount Olive's shortstop, made a backhanded dive for the last out of the third inning. Soto, Randolph’s second baseman, leaped to nab what would have been a sure hit and RBI for Borozan with one out and a runner on third in the third inning.
Trish Costanza, Smith's mother, was rooting for the Marauders, of course, but was pleased that her former field hockey player at Morris Knolls, Ashley (Thompson) Kanya, has been doing such a fine job coaching Randolph.
"It was nice to be surrounded by such talented female athletes," Costanza said.
Kanya lauded the Rams (10-5) for "playing their hearts out."
"I'm not happy with the outcome," Kanya said. "I'm so proud of the way we played. I'm not going to blame anyone. It's a bummer. A heartbreaker. Both teams played hard. We hit well and played good defense. Our pitcher was lights out. We gave it all we had."
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