While her team competed at the Chatham Tournament last weekend, West Essex coach Andrea Mondadori credited the grind of the Super Essex Conference’s American Division schedule as the reason her team ultimately won that tourney with wins over Morris Knolls and Chatham.
Mondadori’s Knights took a four-game winning streak into a second matchup at powerful Livingston on April 17. And while West Essex left in the short end of a 13-3 count, this game was far from a blow out.
West Essex (6-5) grabbed an early 1-0 lead over Livingston in the first inning when it drew three walks, wrapped around a Jenny Shaw double to the opposite field off Jess Peslak. It extended its lead to 2-0 in the second on an unearned run which included a Monica Onorata single and two Peslak walks, but Peslak also had six strikeouts through two innings against a familiar foe.
“Playing these kind of games really build character,” Mondadori has said all season long. “There’s never an easy game and we all know each other so well.”
The Hofstra-bound Peslak eventually settled into a groove, finishing with a four-hitter in the five-inning game, striking out 10 and walking six.
“We play West Essex so many times,” said Peslak, whose team won an 8-1 decision in the season opener at West Essex on April 1. “They’re always tough games. My teammates had my back today and really hit the ball. We’re a team. There are games when I like to think I take control and games where my stuff isn’t as good and they’re there for me with defense and hitting.”
Peslak has had her share of success against West Essex, including three wins last season, culminated by a 17-strikeout, two-hit shutout, in the semifinals of the Essex County Tournament.
Livingston (8-3) scored three times in the third, then added four in the fourth and six in the fifth to close the deal. The top of the Lancers’ lineup was particularly effective as leadoff hitter Kyle McLaughlin, No. 2 batter Rachel Wasilak and Sammi Rothenberger delivered clutch at bats, including a two-run homer by Rothenberger in the third which gave Livingston its first lead at 3-2.
“We needed a game like that for our offense,” said Livingston coach Jason Daily. “That was good to see, especially against a team like West Essex, who’s been playing real well of late.”
Not to be forgotten was the incredible at-bat turned in by West Essex’s sophomore catcher, Kim Shaw in the top of the fourth inning. At the time, this was very much anyone’s ball game. After Rothenberger’s homer in the bottom of the third, West Essex had rallied in the fourth on a leadoff single by Lu Grazioso, a walk, sacrifice bunt and a fielder’s choice RBI by Jenny Shaw, Kim’s older sister, to plate the tying run.
After a walk re-loaded the bases, Kim Shaw stepped to the plate and battled Peslak pitch-for-pitch, fouling off at least eight pitches on a 3-2 count before being called out on strikes on a very close pitch.
It was, by far, the best at-bat I’ve seen so far this season.
“That could have been ball four,” Daily admitted afterward. “That kid really battled.”
Mondadori didn’t want to get into a conversation about the umpiring, which for the most part was pretty good, but she, too, felt the pitch was close. Had Shaw walked there, West Essex has a 4-3 lead, still with one out, and Livingston is on its heels.
Peslak followed the strikeout by inducing a pop up and in the bottom of the fourth, Livingston erupted for four runs, highlighted by a two-run double from Wasilak, that broke the game open.
After Livingston had opened a 7-3 lead, Mondadori brought her team in for a quick conversation.
“Guys, look,” Mondadori said. “The last inning didn’t go our way, but this is why you have to learn to deal with adversity. No one is giving you anything, both in a game, and in life. You work your way through it. Let’s go.”
While this day didn’t produce the ultimate results for West Essex, it’s clearly evident the Knights are really close to being an outstanding club.
“We’re getting there,” Mondadori said as the team boarded the bus back to North Caldwell. “But we have to finish these kind of games against a team like Livingston. I remember back in 2006, Livingston 10-run ruled us and I actually said to Jason then, ‘thanks, this will actually help us.’ And ultimately, it did, as we won a state sectional title that season and the county championship the next year. We’re really young this season, but we play hard and enjoy this kind of competition. You saw what Livingston did today. They took advantage of opportunities and won. We had our chances but didn’t fully capitalize.”
And don’t be shocked if Livingston and West Essex meet once again this season, somewhere in the county tournament.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see them again,” Peslak said with that usual smile after she put in some additional work with batterymate Marina Lombardi after the game was over.