Highlands wins on a walkoff at Friendship Tourney

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Junior Abby Morrison went the full nine innings without allowing an earned for Northern Highlands, which beat Rutherford, 2-1, on a walk-off homer Alexis Miller.

ALLENDALE – Some ideas come upon over a couple of adult beverages at a friend’s barbecue are better off never coming to fruition. Others turn into worthwhile ventures. The Friendship Tournament, three softball games played in Allendale on Saturday afternoon, is certainly in the latter category.

Northern Highlands softball coach Chris Broking has the backstory: “Over the summer Dan [Rattacasa], the head coach at Westwood, had a little barbeque and we were all just relaxing and having a good time. Somebody came up with the idea and said, ‘Let’s have a Friendship Tournament,” said Broking. “I might have had too many [adult beverages] because I said, ‘Sure, I will host it.’

It all came to fruition on Saturday with six teams playing three games on two fields behind Northern Highlands High School. An added bonus, for this publication at least, is that the proceeds will be donated to NorthJerseySports.com’s own Richie ‘Ballgame’ Barton, whose battle against Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, has progressed to the remission and recovery stage.

“We all coach at schools that are a part of communities and there are a lot of great charities out there, but we wanted to reach out to someone in our community and make a direct impact right away,” said Broking. “We wanted to make the gesture not just financially, but emotionally because when someone knows that you are behind them, it goes a long way. [Northern Highlands assistant coach] Caryn [Schanstine] was the one that suggested that we do this for Rich and it is very appropriate. We wanted him to know that we are behind him because he has done so much for the kids that have played this sport over the years.”

Hopefully Richie B. will be there to cover the second annual Friendship Tournament next year, but that version will have a hard time living up to Saturday’s action as two of the games were decided by game-ending walk-off home runs. Victoria Sebastian’s blast in the bottom of the seventh lifted Ramsey past Northern Valley/Demarest, 5-3, and in the day’s final game, Northern Highlands sophomore Alexis Miller hit a solo blast over the leftfield fence to end a marathon nine-inning battle against Rutherford. Highlands won that one, 2-1.

Rutherford starter Leigha Goldsack struck out 11 in 8 1/3 innings of work.

“I was just thinking to keep my eyes on the ball through contact. I knew that if I tried to think too much that I wouldn’t be able to do it,” said Miller, whose no-doubter was the first home run of her high school career. “It was a fastball down the middle and I knew I made good contact, but with my size I never really think that any ball I hit is going to go out. I knew it was a line drive, but then I saw that it went over when I got to first base and that felt really good.”

Miller’s blast put an abrupt end to a game that was dominated by the two starting pitchers. Rutherford’s Leigha Goldsack and Highlands’ Abby Morrison hung up a whole lot of zeroes as neither gave up a hit through the game’s first four innings and Morrison made it through five with her no-hit bid intact.

Goldsack struck out six through the first four innings and Highlands’ only baserunners in that span came on a pair of two-out walks, one drawn by Kristen Salvatore in the first and the other taken by Olivia Materetsky in the third, but both were stranded at first base. Morrison did not allow a single Bulldog to reach base through the first five innings as she retired 15 straight to start the game.

The first real hard contact of the game came off the bat of Miller in the bottom of the fifth when she smoked a one-hopper right at an infielder. It could have been scored an error because it hit off the fielder’s glove or it could have gone as a too-hot-to-handle base hit, but regardless, Miller earned her spot on first base and moved to second on Allison Orr’s sacrifice bunt and scored on Mackenzie Van Dam’s single to rightfield.

With the way Morrison was throwing the ball, it looked like that one run might be enough, but Rutherford, which was 2-0 coming into the game, scratched out a run in the top of the sixth to get even. Emma Guzman led off the frame with Rutherford’s first hit, a clean rope to right field and stole second with one out. Highlands’ only fielding mistake came on the subsequent ground ball to second hit by Catie Carton. Orr made the play and got the out at first, but when Guzman took off for third, the throw over missed the mark and Guzman scored standing up to tie the game at 1.

Mackenzie Van Dam drove in Highlands' first run with a fifth inning single.

Goldsack worked around a hit and a walk in the bottom of the sixth, a leadoff single in the seventh and a leadoff walk in the eight to keep Rutherford in it, but the Bulldogs just could not get anything going against Morrison (9 IP, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 H, 11 K, 0 BB), the junior right-hander who did not walk a single batter in her nine innings of work. Rutherford’s only other baserunner in the game was Megan Tanella, who single leading off the eighth and then gave way to pinch runner Giuliana Biancamano, who stole second with one out and then third with two away. But Morrison responded with two straight strikeouts to wriggle out of trouble and then worked a 1-2-3 ninth to set up Miller’s heroics.

Instead of getting frustrated with the lack of run support, Morrison just kept going about her business until the offense could come through.

“You just have to know that your team has your back and it was my job to do everything I could to keep my team in the game until they could get that one big hit. I knew it was going to come sooner or later,” said Morrison, whose stat line in the three games she has pitched this season, all wins, is a stunning 23 innings pitched with a 0.304 ERA to go with 22 strikeouts against just one walk. “Everything was working, so I just tried to keep mixing it up and not leave anything hanging for them.”

Goldsack was almost as good as she went 8 1/3 innings allowing just two runs, one earned, and three hits while striking out 11 and walking four. The loss was the first of the year for Rutherford (2-1).

“The bottom line is that we made more mistakes than they did and you can expect your pitcher to lead you through nine innings without giving up anything,” said Rutherford head coach Helen Antzoulides. “Leigha pitched pretty well, really well, an you can expect her to just keep the other team scoreless for 10, 11, 12 innings. We had to come up with something offensively and we didn’t do that. As frustrating as that is now in Game 3, I hope I am not standing here in front of you in the middle of May with that same frustration. We have to get better and I am confident that we will.”

Northern Highlands also has tremendous room for growth. The Highlanders did not have a single senior on the field. Morrison and Tiffany LaTerra are juniors, Miller is a sophomore and the rest of the Highlanders’ starters are part of a talented freshman class.

“It is really amazing being a freshman on this team and being a part of such a close-knit group,” said Emily Bookstaver, the Highlanders freshman catcher. “I am so close with all the girls weather they are fellow freshmen or upperclassmen and I just feel a lot of comfort and we are having a lot of fun.”

So, Year One of the Friendship Tournament is in the books and, on behalf of Richie Ballgame, we say thanks and see you next year.