BELL, KOFSKY LEAD MIDDLETOWN NORTH TO FIRST-EVER STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
By Mike Ready
UNION – Flashback to last year’s NJSIAA Group III semifinal against Indian Hills. Then-junior Ashley Kofsky is at bat in the bottom of the seventh with two outs, the bases loaded and the Lions trailing, 2-0.
With a chance to be the hero and send Middletown North to their first state final since 1992, Kofsky struck out swinging to end the game.
Now fast-forward to this year’s NJSIAA Group III final at Kean University against Chatham. Kofsky is at bat with one out in the bottom of the fifth of a scoreless game with runners on second and third.
As she approached the batter’s box, Kofsky can’t help but relive that fateful at bat of a year ago but quickly refocuses on the job ahead of her.
Kofsky, the team leader in RBI with 31, responds with the biggest hit of her career drilling a two-run double off the left/centerfield wall for what turned out to be the game-winning runs in the Lions’ 5-0 win over Chatham and their first-ever state championship.
“Yes, this makes up for it,” said Kofsky when asked if she felt some sort of redemption. “That was a very upsetting thing for me last year when that happened; it was definitely on my mind. So it felt good to come out here and do something good like that today for the team.
“At that point, I was just trying to hit a basic pop fly to score the runner at third, but instead something bigger happened.”
Lions ace and winning pitcher, Malori Bell, was confident Kofsky would come through.
“It was huge. I thought it was home run for a second but the wall is so big,” said Bell of Kofsky’s big hit. “She’s come up clutch for us so many times I just knew she was going to be the person to get the job done.”
Middletown North head coach Chris Hoffman knew last year’s game was still on Kofsky’s mind but had faith she could put it behind her and come through in the clutch Sunday.
“It was kind of redemption for her,” said Hoffman. “She was upset and had that in the back of her mind from last year. So she redeemed herself so to speak and what better way to do it.”
Number nine batter Alyssa Sigler, who made a sparkling running catch up against the left field wall in the top of the sixth, got the four-run fifth-inning rally started. She legged out a perfect bunt single that rolled between the pitcher and third baseman before the ball was eventually fielded by the shortstop who had no play on the ball.
Bell followed with a hard line-drive single up the middle putting runners at first and second. Senior Cara McNulty then sent a fly ball to deep centerfield that Sigler tagged up on and went to third before Bell stole second putting both runners in scoring position and bringing up Kofsky, who broke the scoreless tie.
Freshman Mallory Shevlin ran for Kofsky and scored from second on junior Mia Botti’s RBI double into the right/centerfield gap to make it 3-0.
Up until the fifth inning, Chatham starting pitcher Anna Lengner had matched Bell’s dominance on the mound with an above average fast ball, but things fell apart for her quickly in the fifth.
Botti has been a bit of an unsung hero recently for the Lions. After starting catcher Gabby Cerbo went down with concussion symptoms two games ago, Botti, normally the starting shortstop, was asked to take over for Cerbo behind the plate at a position she’s never played before and she’s been flawless.
“Mia Botti’s my shortstop and has never caught a day in her life,” said Hoffman. “Lunch time we took her out to the field and we taught her how to catch and she’s done unbelievable in two games. When I told her she was going to catch and now bat fourth she was more concerned about batting fourth than catching. I was like, ‘what? you’re not scared to catch right now because I am,’ but she’s done great and got a big hit today too.”
Botti advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on another wild pitch on a close play at the plate with a perfect slide underneath the tag that gave the Lions an insurmountable 4-0 lead heading into the top of the sixth.
“Mia’s a hard worker and knew what she had to do under the circumstances,” said Bell. “She was more than willing to help us out and has been a vital part to our team for the whole season. I had a lot of confidence in her and a lot of trust in Mia.”
Middletown North tacked on a run in the sixth to push the lead to 5-0 when senior left fielder Jacey Tammaro reached on an error, moved to second when Bell was intentionally walked and scored on senior Cara McNulty’s line-drive single into centerfield.
“Getting those runs was huge,” said Bell. “It was a big momentum boost and we kind of knew we had it from there.”
Although Bell didn’t have one of her dominant strikeout games you’ve come to expect out of her, she was magnificent on the mound in picking up her 22nd shutout of the season. The overpowering righty gave up three hits, struck out seven and walked one, allowing just five base runners all game.
“I wasn’t getting the high strikes, which is where I kind of like to throw my pitches,” said Bell of her performance. “I had to change my approach a little bit but my defense always has my back.
“It’s huge,” Bell said of the win. “I feel a lot of people doubted us and didn’t think we’d be able to do it. Coming out here today and getting the job done is huge for everyone.”
For the Lions (27-6) – ranked six in the state – they’ll be experiencing another first in the Tournament of Champions. They’re seeded third and will play sixth-seed and Group IV champions Hightstown (25-4), which is ranked No. 10 in the state and is also making its first trip in program history to the T.O.C. after winning its first-ever state title.
“I was driving here with our trainer, Danielle Kanski, who played on the 1989 team that lost in the finals,” said Hoffman. “This is big for us but this is also big for the players that played in ‘89 and ‘92 (and lost in the state finals). This is for our school, our town and our community. We said we wanted to do something we’ve never done – this is special.”
UPDATE: Middletown North’s historic season came to end in the first round of the T.O.C. after the Lions fell to Hightstown, 4-2, in nine innings. Bell and Hightstown pitcher Allie Bridgman were locked into a scoreless pitching duel after eight innings before Hightstown struck for four runs in the top of the ninth on a grand slam by freshman Abbey Bell. Entering the top of the ninth, Bell allowed just one hit and struck out 17 before tiring in the ninth and getting tagged for four runs. The Lions rallied in the bottom half of the inning scoring two runs after loading the bases with one out and had the tying runs on base with two outs but couldn’t push them across the plate.
During the game, Bell picked up her 400th strikeout of the season fanning the final batter of the third inning to eclipse the mark. She finished with 18 strikeouts for the game and 411 for the season pushing her over the 1000 mark for her career.