It will be The Favored vs. Cinderella when West Essex and Montclair meet for the 39th Essex County Tournament championship on Saturday morning, May 21. Take note that the game has been moved to 11 a.m., from its original starting time of 7 p.m.
West Essex seeks its fourth county title and first since 2007 while Montclair will go after its first-ever county championship. The Mounties last appeared in the county final in 2005.
Second-seeded West Essex (21-2) spotted Cedar Grove an early 1-0 lead, then came back to win, 8-1, behind the pitching of Sami Huetter, the hitting of Bridget (Over Troubled Water) Betley, Madison Gemma and Amanda Garofalo, and an absolutely clutch play by freshman shortstop Julia Vardiman, that clearly changed the course of the game.
With Cedar Grove leading, 1-0, and threatening for more in the second inning, Vardiman made a diving stop of a line drive that appeared destined for a two-run double. She then got up and threw out the lead runner at third base. West Essex got out of the jam without allowing a run, then turned the tide an inning later, by scoring three times.
“Julia is the real deal,” said West Essex coach Andrea Mondadori. “That play was clutch.”
The low-keyed Vardiman deflected the praise.
“I got a good jump on the ball, and when I grabbed it, I looked over and saw there was a play at third,” said the freshman. “When there’s stress, you do your best.”
The Bridge(t) of Madison County combo of Betley and Gemma provided key hits when West Essex opened a 3-1 lead in the third inning.
Once Huetter (Canonero II) got the lead, she was extra tough on a very good Cedar Grove team. The Panthers have just one senior on its roster and battled hard against a solid Knights squad. Cedar Grove centerfielder Rianna Marinelli made a fantastic catch in center and continues to excel.
“I thought we hit the ball really well today,” said Mondadori. “I was pleased with our intensity.”
In the second game, upstart Montclair continued its Cinderalla run, by defeating Livingston, 7-4, in an exciting game before a large crowd at Ivy Hill.
Montclair (10-13) and winners of seven straight games, jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead over Livingston, then extended to a 6-0 lead in the fifth, before the Lancers rallied back to cut the lead in half.
The Mounties answered with a run in the sixth, then held off a Livingston rally in the seventh to clinch its first berth in the county final in 11 years.
Montclair, which defeated West Essex, 3-2, in a tremendous game on May 10, hasn’t lost since dropping a game to Livingston on April 29. As well as the Mounties are playing, it did not qualify for the NJSIAA tournament.
“This is our big chance,” said Montclair coach Phil Delgado. “We didn’t make the states, so this is the dance for us. We get the opportunity to play a great West Essex team on Saturday.”
Montclair’s opportunistic defense was spurred by two incredible plays. In the second inning, Livingston loaded the bases with one out, and appeared to have a chance to tie it on a line drive, to right field. But second baseman Izzy Gauval made a marvelous catch on the fly, then doubled a runner off first to end the threat.
In the fifth inning, centerfielder Ciarah Minning made a Willie Mays-type, (1954 World Series) over-the-head catch of a long drive to dead center. Livingston went on to score three times in that inning, but Minning’s grab produced a huge out, or Livingston might have scored two more runs in the frame.
Montclair pitcher Jessie (Nyquist) Masur pitched another solid game, holding off a few Livingston rallies and making key pitches when needed.
And so PDGIsland stays hot for another day, as the Mounties look to cap an impossible dream by winning the county title.
“You think back to all those scrimmages on cold days in March,” said Delgado. “And then, we’re off to a 3-13 start, we’re struggling for an identity, and now this. Wow.
“Just living the dream.”