NEWARK _ Sara Iuzzolino, Anna Lengner and Jocelyn Spencer all came through with prime-time clutch performances.
And at just the right moment of the season.
Chatham's terrific trio helped lead the Cougars past West Milford, 6-0, in a Group III semifinal state tournament game on Friday, May 31 at the Mike Sheppard, Sr. Softball Complex on the Seton Hall University campus.
Chatham advances to its first-ever state softball championship game and will meet Middletown North (26-6), a 1-0 victor over Delsea in the Central-South Group III semifinal, for the title on Sunday, June 2 at Kean University in Union at 2:30 p.m.
The winner of that game will move on to the third annual Tournament of Champions, which begins Tuesday night, June 5 at Sheppard Field with two first-round games. The TOC will be seeded Monday with the top two seeds receiving byes and the semifinals to be played Thursday, June 7 and the final Friday, June 8 at the same site.
In the North 2, Group III final on Wednesday, May 29, Chatham shut out Nutley 2-0 behind another terrific performance from Lengner, who has now spun three straight shutouts and struck out 10 or more batters in every one of those games. The Cougars won their first sectional championship since 2011. That Chatham team defeated Colonia, 6-3, for the North 2, Group III crown and then fell to eventual overall Group III state champion Sparta, 2-1, in the North Group III semifinal.
Lengner, a senior right-hander, tossed a dazzling two-hitter for the Cougars (19-8), who have won eight of their last nine games. She struck out 14 and walked none and stayed ahead in the count on the vast majority of the 26 batters she faced. She has now gone 23 consecutive innings without allowing a run and, at the plate, has over 100 hits in her career. She will continue her academic endeavors at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania in the fall where she has decided not to play softball.
"I know West Milford is a very good hitting team and I wanted to try to mix up my pitches and stay up in the count as much as I could," said Lengner. "I'm just so proud to help contribute with all my teammates to give us a chance at winning a state championship, it's what we've worked for all year long."
Iuzzulino, a sophomore second baseman, produced a big two-run single with one out in the top of the fourth inning, to break a scoreless deadlock.
"I wasn't looking for any special pitch, just something I could make good contact on," said Iuzzolino. "We are always confident with Anna dealing in the circle. And once we got the lead we got even more confidence."
Spencer, a senior, blasted a solo home run in the sixth inning over the 210-foot fence in left field to make it 3-0 and also had an RBI single to spark a three-run top of the seventh inning that made it 6-0. Lengner and sophomore Kayla Friedman also had run-scoring base hits in the seventh.
"We have been playing well lately and we just want to keep it going," said Spencer, who blasted her fifth homer and is now batting .384 (30 for 78) this season with 22 RBIs and four doubles and three triples to go along with her gaudy home run total. "Everyone's clicking at exactly the right time of the year."
Chatham fourth-year coach Brian Figueiredo was also extra proud of his team, which finished fifth in the NJAC-American Division with a 5-7 division mark and lost to West Morris Central, 4-0, in a Morris County Tournament second-round game on April 29 and came back to defeat West Morris, 3-2, in a North 2, Group III quarterfinal game on May 20.
"We played a really great game today in every category - pitching, defense and hitting - and it very may well have been our best effort of the year," said Figueiredo. "We did everything we needed to do to win the game. West Milford was a very tough team and we had to play at this level to have success in a game like this. I'm very proud of our entire team."
West Milford finished its season at 14-11 and had won four games in a row and six of its last seven before the Chatham contest. The Highlanders earned their first softball sectional championship in 15 years since 2004 when they defeated West Essex, 3-1, in the North 1, Group 3 title game on Wednesday, May 29 in North Caldwell.
West Milford, under veteran coach Nikki Gwinnett, made it to the Passaic County Tournament championship game this season, falling to Passaic County Tech, 3-0, in the on May 15 in the PCT final.
West Milford finished tied for third place with Wayne Valley in the Big North Conference-Independence Division this season, each finishing with 5-5 league records.
In the game against Chatham, senior right-hander Jess Perucki, who has come up big in the state tournament, allowed nine hits, striking out six and walking three in going the seven-inning distance in the circle. At the plate, she also had one of West Milford's two hits with senior Natalie Marzalek garnering the other Highlander hit leading off the bottom of the third inning.
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