MOUNT OLIVE _ Annalee Smith was seeking redemption for herself and Mount Olive.
Last year's result against Ridgewood was still weighing heavily on the mind of Smith, the Marauders' catcher, when she stepped to the plate to open the bottom of the sixth inning with the score tied, 3-3, in a North Jersey Section 1, Group IV semifinal. All she wanted was to get on base.
Smith looked over the first pitch, a ball, before homering over the fence in right field. The home run, Smith's first in 48 games, more than fulfilled her wish, sending the third-seeded Marauders to a 4-3 victory over the No. 7 Marauders on Friday, May 25.
"I was looking for something to barrel up on," said Smith, Mount Olive's cleanup hitter. "I wanted to get someone in scoring position and create an opportunity for our team. We lost 9-2 to Ridgewood (in the first round of the state tournament in 2017). That one really hurt."
Ridgewood triumphed in short order last season, laying down 16 bunts. The Marauders committed four errors and managed only four hits and made a quick exit from the state tourney. The homer was unexpected, although Smith did have one versus Morris Catholic in a preseason scrimmage and five as a freshman and sophomore. This blast, however, had great significance because it alleviated the sting of the seven-run setback and the incessant bunting as well as earned Mount Olive a berth in the sectional final opposite Livingston on Tuesday.
"Annalee has been a line-drive hitter," Mount Olive coach Bill Romano said. "She gets gap hits and always comes up big when we need her. For four years, she's been a rock behind home plate."
Three weeks ago, Smith had the game-winning hit in the bottom of the eighth inning of a Morris County Tournament semifinal against Randolph, sending the Marauders to the title game for the first time since 2008. It has also been a decade since Mount Olive (19-5) has played for a sectional championship.
Over the last three seasons, the Marauders have clashed with Ridgewood in the states. In 2016, Mount Olive's win was equally dramatic. Alyssa Borozan slugged a two-run homer in the ninth inning of a quarterfinal, sending the Marauders past the Maroons, 2-1. The date of that victory was the same: May 25.
Mount Olive led, 3-2, in the current game until the top of the sixth when Ridgewood scored on Kiera Boucher's base hit. The next batter, Chloe Lennon, doubled to right-center field. Right fielder Alyssa Segnello fielded the ball and fired to shortstop Lindsey Walter. The relay concluded with Walter throwing to Smith, who applied the tag at home.
"That play was huge," Romano said. "It got everyone riled up. That was great defense. They settled down finally."
Smith, whose previous home run was on May 18, 2016 against Mendham, quickly shed her catcher's gear after the excellent defensive play, took a few swings and walked to the batter's box.
"It was funny that I was getting up to bat and the Ridgewood coach (Patti Auger) said 'All left side,'" Smith recalled. "It was kind of shocking that the ball went to right field. I'm usually up the middle or to the left."
Junior designated player Kaitlin Pettenger also was critical to Mount Olive's attack, knocking in a pair of runs in the three-run third inning with a double to left-center field off a 1-2 pitch. Julia Chang doubled and Walter singled and stole second base before Pettenger's at-bat.
Pettenger, a first baseman or left fielder when not the DP, had swung a hot bat of late, going 12 for 20 with nine RBIs and four walks over the Marauders' last six games.
"I knew I had to get runners in," Pettenger said. "I stuck to mechanics. I kept my cool and did what I know how to do best. I've been hitting well and that's good for the team. I've been focusing on the ball and trying to get everything out of my head."
Romano noted that Pettenger, unfazed by pressure situations, is a team player and is "hitting the best out of anyone."
"Kaitlin does whatever I ask her to do," he said. "I can't take her out of the lineup. She's been hitting the ball really, really well."
Borozan, a senior pitcher, has been effective in the circle and was solid against Ridgewood, yielding four hits and striking out seven. The Maroons reached her for two runs in the second inning. Errors played a role. Beginning with the last out of the second inning, Borozan retired 10 in a row.
Now, Mount Olive will vie for a sectional title.
"This is definitely an amazing feeling," Pettenger said. "We've never been there before. Ridgewood has been a struggle for us, especially when they bunt. It's so good to beat them."
"We just had to play our game," Smith said. "This could have been the last one. We said 'We've got this.' It's my senior year so it's really great."
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