It’s always fun to throw the stud word around when referencing good softball players in Essex County. And most know I dubbed Livingston pitcher Jess Peslak “Secretariat” back when she was a freshman in 2010.
More recently, a second stud title, “Seattle Slew” was afforded Livingston’s junior centerfielder Kylie McLaughlin for her speed on the basepaths and outstanding defense.
So on the biggest stage of the Essex County Tournament’s championship game, it was the two studs who made key plays to guide Livingston past Mount St. Dominic, 5-4, for its school-record second straight county title at Ivy Hill Park in Newark.
The championship was the fifth overall for Livingston, which improved to 5-4 in ECT title games. Mount St. Dominic was appearing in it sixth championship game over the last seven seasons. It was seeking its fifth overall crown in its 11th championship game. The Mount last won the title in 2009.
Peslak is known for her multiple strikeouts and near unhittable rise ball, but on this night, it was her bat that would decide this game.
Mount St. Dominic (21-6) was hitting Peslak pretty well. She gave up three runs in the top of the first as she walked leadoff batter Sam Platt and hit Gabby Lombardi, the second batter, giving the Lions a chance to take its first lead against Peslak in six tries. They did just that, as Ashley Kowalski hit a run-scoring single and Olivia Gemma, who can assuredly gain a stud title of her own, knocked in two more runs.
But Livingston (21-3) would rally back with two runs in the bottom of the frame as McLaughlin led off with a single, stole second (by a whisker) and scored on a single by Sammi Rothenberger. Jazzy Pignatello later doubled home Rothenberger to make it 3-2.
“We needed to get something going right away,” McLaughlin said afterward. “My job is to get on base and make things happen.”
Peslak battled throughout the game, not finding a steady rhythm with the home plate umpire’s strike zone.
“That’s part of the game,” Peslak said. “I thought some of the pitches were strikes, but they weren’t called. I had to work through it and my teammates helped me, a lot. They had my back, told me to stay with it and just keep throwing.”
After the first inning, Peslak would allow just one more run, that coming in the third when Gemma singled and scored on a hit by Katie Johnson that made it 4-2. Peslak would blank the Lions over the final 4 1/3 innings.
Meanwhile, Livingston was held to those two first inning runs behind the combined pitching of Gemma, who started, Sam Platt, who came in at the beginning of the third inning and remained there until Livingston rallied with three runs in the last of the fifth and Gemma, again, who pitched the last 1 2/3 innings.
In the bottom of the fifth, McLaughlin would start another rally, this time by drawing a one-out walk.
“We had to get something going,” McLaughlin would say later.
She came around to score on a double by the ever-reliable Rachel Wasilak to cut the Mount’s lead to 4-3. Rothenberger singled home Wasilak to tie it and went to third on the throw to the plate.
That set the stage for Peslak, who hasn’t been hitting as well as she’d like this year, but the senior lined a single to give the Lancers the lead for good.
“I was thinking we might squeeze in that position,” Peslak said. “But they were playing in tight and when she threw a low inside pitch, I got a good swing and it went through. I was a better hitter as a freshman, but this was big today. We’ve played them so many times and we know each other’s tendencies real well.”
Livingston coach Jason Daily contemplated not batting Peslak in the title game, as she continues to work through a back injury.
“I thought about it, but before the game, Jess gave me a kind of look that said ‘I’m hitting’ and that was that,” Daily said. “She showed emotion today in her performance and I liked that.”
With her first lead of the day, Peslak pitched two more scoreless innings, working out of some jams. In the seventh, she gave up a lead off single, but retired the next two hitters and faced Gemma, who had a marvelous tournament. Gemma was 2-for-2 on the night and Daily came out to discuss intentionally walking Gemma.
“That was the plan,” Peslak said. “But the last time we tried to intentionally walk a player, it almost backfired on us. (Peslak was referring to last year’s state sectional final when a free pass nearly turned into a wild pitch). I was able to get ahead on the count and it worked out.”
Peslak retired Gemma to end a tremendous game.
“The Mount came to play,” Daily said. “That’s a tremendous team out there. We both battled pretty hard. And I can’t say enough about Gemma. I’ve always liked that kid as a competitor and hard-nosed athlete. She comes to play and is a winner. And Johnson is also outstanding.
“As for our kids, what can I say? I was so proud of the way they hung in there and played tonight. We had our backs against the wall, but never quit. I think this game will really carry us into the state tournament.”