The ‘Final Four’ of the Essex County Tournament is almost set.
Right now, only the fourth seed, Nutley, has advanced as a team that was somewhat expected to make it, based on its seed.
Top seeded Livingston, the defending two-time champion, is out, as Cedar Grove, the ninth seed, won a thrilling come-from-behind 5-4 contest on May 9, in Livingston.
West Essex, the third seed, was eliminated on May 10, by arch rival Caldwell, 11-0, in six innings. In both instances, the teams that lost had swept their opponent in Super Essex Conference play before failing to gain that elusive third win in the county tournament.
It’s been a while since Caldwell last qualified for the Final Four, but the Chiefs have a rich tradition in this tournament with a record 10 championships in 11 finals, so you never know.
Nutley, which last won the title in 2011, will return to the Final Four for the first time since winning the championship there years ago. It defeated 12th seeded Verona today in a good game, 4-2.
Coach Luann Zullo’s team will face Cedar Grove in the late game (probably 8 p.m.) on May 16 at Ivy Hill Park. Cedar Grove already has two wins over Nutley this year in SEC play. In both games, the Raiders held good-sized leads before the Panthers rallied back to win.
Second seeded Mount St. Dominic hopes to be the final team to qualify for Friday’s semifinals at Ivy Hill Park when it takes on the 10th seed, Montclair, on May 11, at 2 p.m. The teams had tried to play on May 10, in a late afternoon game at MSD, but rain intervened after a scoreless first inning.
The winner of the MSD-Montclair game will take on Caldwell in the 6 p.m. matchup at Ivy Hill Park on May 16.
Cedar Grove’s win was indeed a stunner, as the Panthers took a 3-0 lead, only to have Livingston rally back to take a 4-3 advantage after six innings. Cedar Grove stormed back with a pair of runs in the top of the seventh and held on to win, 5-4.
In the first 36 years of the ECT, only one team, Caldwell, has won three straight championships. Obviously, it’s not easy. The last team to attempt to win three straight, Mount St. Dominic, also lost in the quarters in 2010 to West Orange.
Upsets in this round aren’t uncommon. Two years ago, Newark Academy had to qualify through the play-in round, then went to Nutley, who were the defending champs, and stunned the Raiders in the first round before dominating Caldwell in the quarters.
The seemingly obvious choice of Livingston and Mount St. Dominic meeting in the final for a third straight year won’t happen in 2014, and in a way, that’s good, too. It just goes to show that the games are won on the field.
Caldwell coach Mike Teshkoyan called his team’s win over West Essex in the quarters at Cedar Grove’s Panther Park, its best effort of the 2014 season.
Cayla Lombardi was outstanding in the circle with a six inning shutout, but she wasn’t taking too much credit afterward.
“My teammates were hitting the ball early, when we got a 3-0 lead in the first inning,” Lombardi, a junior righty, said. “How many did I struck out, two (batters)? Another words, the defense was doing a great job. I felt like my pitches were in good spots, and I’m happy about that. This was hard to describe today. I just felt really good during warm ups and I think all of us were loose and ready to play. It was a good win for us.”
Without getting into a diatribe about Lombardi’s injury which kept her out for most of the 2013 season, her comeback this year is nothing short of outstanding.
And while West Essex and Livingston may be out of the ECT, let’s not write them off, either. West Essex has one of the youngest rosters in the SEC American Division and will be a tough out in the NJSIAA tournament.
Livingston needs to win its final two conference games to claim a third straight SEC American Division championship. It will also seek a third straight state sectional title, beginning later this month.
There’s lots of softball ahead and these SEC American Division schools will be more than battle tested come state tourney time.
As for the ECT semis, much more to come later this week in regard to the history of his wonderful tournament, and a look at all four teams and the matchups for Friday night at legendary Ivy Hill.