RED BANK – Julia Parker is not your ordinary sophomore when she steps into the pitching circle. Her poise and maturity go way beyond her age. She stares down batters like a tiger waiting to pounce on its prey in anticipation of its feast.
In Saturday’s Monmouth County Tournament final, Parker feasted on Middletown North batters. She retired 16 in a row after giving up a leadoff single in the top of the second inning and 18 of the final 19 batters. Her brilliant performance helped top-seeded Saint John Vianney capture their ninth straight Monmouth County Tournament championship with a 5-2 win over second-seeded Middletown North.
Parker gave up two runs (one earned) on three hits, struck out six and did not allow a walk in picking up her 16th win of the season against zero defeats. The two runs were the first she allowed since she gave up one run back on Apr. 30 – a string of 32 consecutive scoreless innings.
“I just really want to look intimidating,” Parker said of using her gameface to her advantage. “I want to get that inside corner and hit my spots. All my pitches were really working well today. Coach had a scouting report on everyone so I knew what they can and can’t hit and I really executed my pitches well today.”
Pitching isn’t Parker’s only forte. Hitting third in the batting order she drove in the game’s first run with an RBI single in the top of the first inning to give the Lancers a quick 1-0 lead and finished 2-for-4 at the plate. She’s hitting .483 – second on the team – with four home runs and 17 RBI on the year.
“She’s a really tough sophomore,” said SJV head coach Kim Lombardi. “Usually you start seeing a junior come out sharp like that and she’s really gotten sharper as the year’s gone on. She’s made such a big difference just from last year when she had nine games for me and this year she’s a big-game pitcher.”
Saint John Vianney (20-0) jumped on Middletown North ace Malori Bell for two runs in the top of the first inning. Senior Lindsey Barron, who will follow in her sister, former SJV star Katie Barron, to Monmouth University where the Hawks just captured their first-ever MAAC championship and trip to the NCAA Softball Tournament, led off the game with line shot off the top of the left-field wall missing a home run by inches.
Freshman Julia Ahr, who is 5-0 in the circle backing up Parker, followed with a walk and Parker singled Barron home for the first run. Junior Gabby Polera then walked to load the bases with no outs and the Lancers were threatening to put the game away before it even started.
Junior Alexis Agrapides brought Ahr home lining a sacrifice fly to deep centerfield to make it 2-0 with the runners advancing to second and third. Bell, who is 15-4 with a 1.43 ERA, then settled down striking out the next two batters to get out of the inning without allowing any further damage.
Middletown North (19-4) – ranked sixth in the state – which has now lost to No. 1 Donovan Catholic (3-2) and No. 2 SJV in a matter of three days, added an unearned run in the bottom half of the inning to make it a onerun game, 2-1, after Parker got off to rare shaky start.
Parker hit leadoff batter Milena Wilton with a pitch. Then, with two outs she struck out Cara McNulty swinging, but her pitch was wild allowing McNulty to reach first with Wilton scampering all the way to third. Agrapides followed with a line-drive single down the right-field line scoring Wilton before Parker got Bell to line out to deep center to end the inning.
The score remained 2-1 until the top of the fourth when the Lancers scored three runs off of Bell. Agrapides bunted her way on for a single and junior catcher Ally Jones changed the complexion of the game drilling her second home run of the season over the left-field wall for a 4-1 lead.
“I kind of knew what she was going with – her sequence – and she threw a pitch I was looking for,” said Jones of her homer. “I just zoned in and hit it as far as I could.”
Jones has caught Parker all season long and was impressed with her outing on Saturday.
“Julia is a phenomenal pitcher,” said Jones. “I’ve gotten the opportunity to see her grow since freshman year and she’s only a sophomore. I also catch her during travel ball and her control has gotten tremendously better. She’s the kind of pitcher that you don’t know where she’s going to throw from and that’s scary for a batter.”
The Lancers tacked on another run in the inning on an Ahr RBI single and took what looked like an insurmountable 5-1 lead the way Parker was mowing down batters going into the bottom of the fourth.
“It felt great to have two insurance runs in the first inning,” said Parker of pitching with the lead. “After that I knew we were going to pile up more runs and after Ally’s hit it was just awesome.”
Bell retired nine of her next 11 Lancer batters giving up just two harmless singles as the two teams headed into the bottom of the seventh. With the score still 5-1 the Lions came to bat with Parker having set down the last 16 Middletown North batters in a row.
Parker struck out leadoff hitter Adriana Cerbo to make it 17 in a row but Bell ended the streak crushing a Parker offering over the left-field wall to pull the Lions to within 5-2. Parker refocused getting Ashley Kofsky on strikes and Sam Kanach on 6-3 groundout to end the game.
“You know what’s nice, it’s not the same kid that comes up with the big hit every game,” Lombardi said about getting the early two-run lead. “So we do have depth. Even the kids on the bench right now can come in and get the key hit that we might need. So we feel very comfortable with whoever is up. We scored first and kept applying pressure.”
Having already clinched the Class A Central title and with the MCT title safely under their belts, the Lancers will now look to win their second-straight Shore Conference Tournament title and first overall state championship since 2014 – a feat that has eluded every player on the current team.
“Honestly, the primary focus for us is to focus game by game,” said Jones when asked about the state title drought. “That’s it; we can’t look at the end because we’ve fallen just before we get to the finish line and our primary purpose this year is to finish strong and cross that finish line. Getting that state title is a big thing but honestly there are several very good teams in our bracket and you can get knocked out at any time. So we’re going to take it inning by inning just to break it down so it doesn’t seem so far.”