NEWARK _ Morris Knolls showed a lot of fight and comeback spirit at the National Fastpitch Coaches Association New Jersey High School Leadoff Classic Softball Tournament.
A youthful but resourceful Golden Eagles squad battled back from two early deficits to trim Blair Academy, 6-5, in a morning quarterfinal. In its second game of the day, Morris Knolls turned back Ramsey, 5-0, to advance to Sunday's final.
In the Group I championship game on Sunday, Morris Knolls fell to Bergen County and state power Immaculate Heart Academy, 8-5. The Blue Eagles scored four runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to come back from a 5-4 deficit. IHA earlier had taken a 4-0 lead with Morris Knolls rallying back into the game.
Morris Knolls got a strong team-wide performance with pitcher/third baseman Kayla Turcios, pitcher Cayla Kleczkowski, center fielder Skye Eppel, second baseman Maddison Perna and left fielder Nicole Florey helping to spark the strong two-day effort.
In its opener, Blair took a 1-0 lead over the Golden Eagles in the bottom of the first inning when senior pitcher and leadoff hitter Jesse Schable blasted the second pitch over the fence in straightaway center field, a 300-foot-plus blast. The Bucs from Warren County added a run on an RBI single from sophomore second baseman Jenna Van Valkenburg.
Turcios, a junior, threw an eight-hitter for Morris Knolls, striking out nine, walking four and hitting one batter.
"I was confident I could come back after that opening home run," Turcios said. "I knew our team could come back."
Morris Knolls (4-1) tied it 2-2 in the top of the third, aided by a two-out run-scoring single from junior second baseman Carley Mahan.
The Bucs from Warren County put a run across the in the bottom of the third when Grace Hogue had a run-scoring single to take a 3-2 advantage. But Morris Knolls put up three runs in the top of the fourth to take the lead for good at 5-3, keyed by an RBI single from sophomore outfielder Emma Woods and a sacrifice fly from Eppel, a junior center fielder.
"We don't pay attention to the score, we just keep playing and looking to pick up each other," said Eppel, who had two of Morris Knolls' eight stolen bases against Warren County's Blair.
After an RBI double by Lindsay Rice cut Blair's deficit to 5-4 in the bottom of the sixth, Mahan had a clutch run-scoring single to increase the Golden Eagles' lead to 6-4 in the top of the seventh.
Florey, a sophomore left fielder, came up with a diving catch on a fly ball by Serena Rachel Ninomiya in foul territory for the first out in the bottom of the seventh. That proved crucial when Ashton Martini later produced a two-out RBI double to make it 6-5, but Turcios stranded the potential tying run in scoring position by inducing a grounder to second to end the game.
"I wanted to shade her on the foul line because she was hitting the ball that way," said Florey of her big catch.
Senior Maddison Perna also had two hits, two runs scored and two stolen bases in the victory over Blair (2-1). Kleczkowski, a sophomore, scattered eight hits, striking out three and walking three to help lift the Golden Eagles over Ramsey in the semifinal later Saturday.
"I just wanted to bear down as hard as I could and my defense really made a lot of good plays," said Kleczkowski. "We were really in a good groove from the first inning until the final out."
Ramsey, the Bergen County Tournament champions in 2017 and 2018 and a Group II finalist last year, was led by the Sebastian sisters, Victoria, a senior pitcher headed to play at Villanova, junior second baseman Olivia and sophomore shortstop Bella.
Kleczkowski kept the Rams off balance for most of the game and Turcios, playing third base in this game, delivered a long solo home run, more than 325 feet, to left field in the bottom of the fifth, to cap the Morris Knolls scoring. The ball caromed hard off Field 2's outfield fence, easily clearing the Field 1 fence where the Golden Eagles and Rams were playing.
"We were very, very young last year but are just young this year," said veteran Morris Knolls coach Keith Heinemann. "We have a long way to go, so we will see what happens the rest of the way, but we did play well against two quality opponents today."
In the title game Sunday against IHA (4-0), the initial Tournament of Champions winner in 2017, the Blue Eagles took an early 4-0 lead. after three innings. Morris Knolls rebounded with three runs in the top of the fourth and two in the sixth to take a 5-4 edge before IHA, a 12-time Non-Public A state champion, scored four times in the bottom of the sixth to make it an 8-5 game.
Turcios had a triple and three RBsI and two runs scored and senior catcher Brielle Eike and sophomore first baseman each had an RBI for Morris Knolls against the Blue Eagles from Washington Township in Bergen County.
Morris Knolls stole three bases against IHA, one each from Mahan, Perna and Turcios, giving the Golden Eagles 14 steals in three games at the tournament.
IHA was sparked by junior right-handed pitcher Ryleigh White, who threw a five-hitter, striking out seven, walking one and allowing four earned runs. Senior catcher Mia Recenello went 3 for 4 with a double, a home run and two RBIs, White had two RBIs and Cat Thomas had two hits, a double and an RBI for the Blue Eagles.
The Golden Eagles, who made IHA earn everything they put on the scoreboard and pulled off two successful squeeze bunts, are perennial state tournament Group IV contenders, last winning a Morris County Tournament crown in 2014, their second under Heinemann and fifth overall. They are coming off a 16-8 season after many 20-plus-win years in a row - and appear on their way to big things again in 2019.
By the looks of things over the weekend, the Golden Eagles could be in the thick of things in the conference, county, and the state Group IV tournament competition at the end of the season in late May and early June.
The prestigious Leadoff Classic tournament, which included 16 teams, was mostly made up of the top softball schools in North, Central and South Jersey along with two highly-ranked teams from Delaware and one from Pennsylvania.
The tournament, with Strike Out Cancer as its theme this year, honored former IHA coach Anthony LaRezza, a 2019 NFCA Hall-of-Fame inductee with the ceremony being held on Dec. 6 at the NFCA National Convention in Atlantic City. It served as a fund-raiser for LaRezza's cancer cause and also is aiming to become a national event in the coming years.
LaRezza was the head softball coach at IHA from 2005 until 2015 before passing away suddenly from tongue cancer and complications from cancer treatment on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016 at the age of 50. He was an IHA assistant coach under Jeff Horohonich from 1998 through 2003 before serving as head coach at Montclair Kimberley Academy in 2004.
A longtime Newark firefighter, LaRezza announced that IHA would be playing in a Coaches vs. Cancer event just nine days before his passing.
LaRezza, besides guiding IHA to four Bergen County Tournament and three Non-Public A state tournament championships, was a great and loyal ambassador to the sport of softball. In addition, he was also a coach and administrator for the travel ball team NJ Pride for many years and was the president of the Akadema Elite Fastpitch program.
LaRezza's brothers, Allen and Joe, threw out the first ball before IHA's 10-3 win over Donovan Catholic in the Group 1 semifinals Saturday. IHA had won by forfeit in its first game over St. John Vianney, which had several players injured and did not want to play two games in one day. St. John Vianney later defeated Immaculate Conception of Lodi, 8-0, in a consolation game Saturday.