CHATHAM _ Anna Lengner battled until the very end and she benefitted from some excellent glovework behind her, too.
Lengner threw a shutout for five innings and then stranded three base runners in scoring position in the final two frames to help Chatham edge West Morris Central, 3-2, in a North Jersey Section 2, Group III quarterfinal at Shunpike Field on Monday, May 20.
The third-seeded Cougars (16-8) have won five of their last six games and will host seventh-seeded Cranford, a 10-3 winner over second-seeded Belleville, in a state sectional semifinal game Thursday, May 23, at 4 p.m.
A senior right-hander, Lengner threw a complete game six-hitter, striking out 12 and walking one to propel the Cougars against the never-say-die Highlanders.
Sixth-seeded West Morris (12-9), which had won six of nine games coming in, trailed, 3-0 entering the top of the sixth inning. But leadoff hitter Olivia Malone, a junior catcher, belted a leadoff double into the right-center field gap, and one out later, senior center fielder Jocelyn Johannesen tripled home courtesy runner Madi Weese to make it 3-1. Then Lengner bore down and struck out the last two batters of the inning as the Cougars held on to a two-run advantage.
In the top of the seventh, junior shortstop Maddie Staley singled to left field to lead off for the resilient Highlanders. Then, after Lengner recorded a strikeout for the first out, Staley advanced to third on two wild pitches and junior left fielder Julie Dunn walked on a 3-and-2 delivery to put runners on the corners with one out.
After Dunn stole second base to put runners on second and third, West Morris sophomore and No. 9 batter Hayden Fehnel reached on a fielder's choice. No outs were recorded on the play when a rundown evolved into an errant throw past the plate and Staley scored to make it 3-2. Dunn was waved to third and Fehnel to second after the throw went out of play.
The potential tying run was now on third base and the possible go-ahead run was on second base with one out. But sophomore shortstop Kayla Friedman, with the infield in all the way around the diamond, came up big when she fielded a one-hop grounder perfectly and threw to senior catcher Kaitlin Pinaire, a converted infielder, who applied the tag for the second out of the inning.
With runners on first and third and two outs, Lengner induced a ground ball to sophomore second baseman Sara Iuzzulino, who made a nice play on a cue-shot to her right and threw to first base for the final out of the game.
Also playing solid defense for the Cougars were Hailey Coates and Jocelyn Spencer, who helped to keep the Highlanders from tying the score or taking the lead in the intense final two innings.
"I have a great deal of faith in my defense. I always know they will come up with the big play," said Lengner. "Whenever a ball is hit, I am always confident that the defense will manage to turn it into an out with some stellar fielding work."
Earlier in the season, West Morris Central defeated Chatham, 4-0, in a Morris County Tournament second-round game. Junior right-hander Lauren Mistkowski threw a no-hitter for the Wolfpack, striking out three and walking three versus second-seeded Chatham.
On Thursday, Mistkowski scattered eight hits over six innings, striking out one and walking one and helping to keep her team in the game.
"I just wanted to try as hard as I could to stop the run from scoring," said Friedman about her excellent defensive reaction and throw in the top of the seventh. "Earlier, I had not really done a good job on that relay-rundown play in which they scored a run and I wanted to bounce back from that and help my team out."
Chatham took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first on a leadoff walk to Lengner, a single by Friedman and a sacrifice fly by senior Sarah McCabe to score courtesy runner Lauren Sullivan.
"We wanted to try to try to get on the scoreboard first to kind of try to erase the feeling from that county game," said McCabe, who also played well defensively. "Getting ahead early was very important for us."
The Cougars added two runs in the bottom of the third inning on a leadoff single by sophomore Julia Yukniewicz, a one-out single by Spencer, a senior, and then an error that plated one run and an RBI grounder by Coates that made it 3-0.
Chatham defeated 14th-seeded Colonia, 9-1, in a state first-round game on Thursday, May 16. West Morris turned back 11th-seeded Snyder of Jersey City, 3-0, in the opening round last Thursday.
Chatham, with a roster of six seniors, two juniors and seven sophomores, has been competing well in the NJAC-American Division. Powers like Morris Knolls, Mount Olive, Pope John and Randolph are also in the division, along with usually talented clubs like Roxbury and Sparta.
"I think we've played well this year and are well-balanced and have competed hard in almost every game. We're especially tough at home," said Chatham fourth-year coach Brian Figueiredo. "We've been playing solid softball - offensively, defensive and pitching - so far in the states and we want that to continue."
West Morris Central has been making steady progress under third-year coach Katie Patella. The Highlanders were 1-20 in 2016, the season before Patella arrived, and then in her first season West Morris went 4-12 in 2017 before going 8-14 last year and then making it over the .500 mark at 12-9 so far this season.
The Wolfpack has only two seniors on this year's team and competes hard in the NJAC-National Division against Mendham, Morristown, Montville, Parsippany Hills and Morris Hills.
"We're going to keep battling in every game we have," said Patella. "I believe the best is still in front of us."