When West Essex lost seven starters from a standout team last spring, it was obvious that the returning starters, namely Julia Vardiman and Lily James, would have to carry a bulk of the work load, as a number of youngsters learned the varsity game, in a baptism under fire, so to speak.
The Knights have responded well, after a slow start, and won perhaps its biggest game of the season on April 28, edging Verona, 1-0, in a Super Essex Conference American Division game, in Verona.
West Essex improved to 5-6 on the season, and snapped a 2-game losing streak while Verona, which had won five straight, fell to 6-7.
It was the first of two meetings between the teams, and the expected pitcher’s duel between Vardiman and Verona’s Christina Colon more than exceeded expectations.
Colon, a junior, recorded her sixth straight double-digit strikeout game and eighth in the last nine outings, by fanning 13 and walking two. She gave up one hit (perhaps two, based on the official scoring). The game’s only run came without a hit, in the sixth inning, as West Essex’s Alexa Liggieri led off by striking out, but reached safely on a passed ball, after the third strike. Liggieri stole second and went to third on a wild pitch. Vardiman, the team’s leadoff hitter, followed with a sharp grounder to shortstop, scoring Liggieri. Vardiman was also safe at first on a late throw.
Team captains Lily James (left) and Julia Vardiman of West Essex were key to a big win for the Knights, at Verona, on April 28. (Click on photo for larger image)
Colon worked out of further damage, but Vardiman, also a junior, was up to the task. A marvelous shortstop in 2016 and 2017, Vardiman has made the move to starting pitcher this spring, to help her team after the graduation of 4-year starter Sami Huetter.
Vardiman appeared to get stronger as the game progressed and finished with seven strikeouts, three walks and a hit batter. She struck out five in the last three innings. In the bottom of the sixth, Vardiman was especially impressive, after her team had gained the lead. She gave up a leadoff single, then retired the next two hitters on a pop up to the catcher and a strike out. Then, with the potential tying run at second, and two outs, Vardiman fell behind a Verona batter, 3-0, but came back to record a second strikeout to end the frame.
James, who moved from third base to shortstop this season, had West Essex’s best at-bat of the game, with a 2-out double, in the top of the fourth, but Colon fanned the next batter to end the inning. In a game on April 18, it was James who accounted for the game’s only run, an over-the-fence homer, as West Essex blanked Livingston, 1-0, in another complete game shutout for Vardiman.
Read more about that game here.
Vardiman and James are West Essex’s captains, and both seem to embrace the role, leading in different capacities.
Verona, which has lost four one run games and another by two runs, was unable to get its offense going, despite Colon’s outstanding effort. The Hillbillies are seeded fourth in the upcoming Essex County Tournament (ECT).
“We can’t ask for a better pitching performance,” said Verona coach Angela Salisbury. “We just have to hit batter, it’s as simple as that. We’ve lost a lot of 1-run games this year. I know we’re capable of being better offensively.”
Verona will play a huge game on Monday, when it takes a 5-minute bus ride to play at Cedar Grove, in what should be another tremendous pitcher’s duel, no matter who Cedar Grove puts in the circle.
For West Essex, which gained the third seed in the ECT, the win was crucial, as the Knights look to establish consistency in a tough division.
“We needed that one,” said West Essex assistant coach Jason Ahmed. “Both kids pitched really well. It was a fun game to watch.”