By WAYNE WITKOWSKI Correspondent Middletown High School South’s Sarah Corey slides safely under the tag of Steinert High School catcher Madison Balke to score a run during the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III championship game May 29 in Middletown. The Eagles soared to the championship with a 3-0 win over Steinert. STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ERIC SUCAR It’s familiar territory for Middletown High School South’s softball team against a familiar opponent with two huge games on back-to-back days this week: the NJSIAA Group III semifinals and the Shore Conference Tournament finals.Coach Tom Erbig is not shy about tackling that challenge in a 24-hour span.“This is what we prepare for all season long. That’s why we go outside our division and play teams like Nutley and Mount St. Dominic,” said Erbig, whose team, which is 26-4 with 14 straight victories, nailed down another Shore Conference A North Division championship. “They’re responding better than at the beginning of the season. They’re playing as well as they can right now in a championship-caliber season.”The Eagles are back in the hunt for the Group III state championship after claiming their 15th Central Jersey championship in 19 trips. They beat Steinert High School, 3-0, for this year’s sectional title May 29 behind a three-hitter by pitcher Maddy McMahon, who secured the Eagles’ third straight shutout, and run-scoring hits from Julia Blarr, Ciara Sullivan and Tiffany Lambert.Next up was Delsea Regional High School in a Group III semifinals showdown June 2 at Rowan College in Gloucester County. The winner advances to the state finals June 5 at Kean University.A victory June 2 would advance the Eagles to the state finals they previously reached in three straight years, winning back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 and losing in 2011.The day after the Delsea game, Middletown South will take the field at Wall for a showdown against Middletown High School North for the Shore Conference Tournament title. Middletown South is 7-7 in Shore Conference Tournament finals, capturing its last title in 1996 against St. John Vianney High School and losing in the next two trips since then — in 2011 to St. John Vianney and 2009 to Red Bank Catholic High School.An all-Middletown final in the conference tournament previously took place in 1984. Middletown South won that game. Middletown North poses a formidable challenge this time at 22-6 with eight wins in its last nine games. It split the two regularseason games against Middletown South, losing the first, 11-2, and beating Middletown South in the second game, 6-4, April 30.Middletown North stunned previously unbeaten St. John Vianney, 2-0, in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals, as Milena Wilton lined a two-run single in the fifth inning and Riley Kernan scattered six hits.McMahon will be on the mound for these games for Middletown South, and Lambert will be ready if called upon. They shared time on the mound earlier in the season.“We’re riding her. She’s hot and keeps the runners off the bases,” Erbig said of McMahon. “She hits locations instead of where [hitters] want it.” As for Lambert, who is headed to St. Peter’s University, Erbig said, “We’ll bring her in if we need someone to throw differently. Maddy throws hard. Tiffany doesn’t get the strikeouts but throws off-speed and gets the ball hit, and we’ve been making the plays.”They have taken leads early in games, which has made life easier for the pitching that has nailed down a dozen shutouts. Credit that to a lineup that has been on a tear, typified in a Shore Conference Tournament semifinal victory, 11-0, May 30 over Matawan Regional High School and a 7-0, no-hitter against Raritan High School, as third baseman Blarr and Lambert each drove in two runs as the hottest hitters, along with Sullivan and second baseman Nikki Curran. Even catcher Hannah Wisialko has found her swing of late. They’ve all been making plays in the field smoothly along with shortstop Alex Corrigan, who is headed to Fairfield University. Middletown North swung hot bats in a conference tournament semifinals victory over Donovan Catholic, 15-14, scoring three runs in the top of the seventh for a 15- 9 lead before thwarting a Donovan Catholic comeback in the home seventh that fell just short. Alyssa Vetrano smashed four hits for three RBIs, while Kayla Gallo collected four hits and she, Liz Dorsa and Christine Gebhardt each batted in two runs — the latter two with three hits each.“It’s all about playing together as a team,” said Middletown North coach Mark Rosner, whose team actually won the A North championship the two previous seasons before Middletown South won it this year.The coach said four players showed their team spirit as they moved smoothly to new positions: freshman Vetrano from right field to third base, sophomore Ryan Rasmussen from third base to catcher, sophomore Gallo from catcher to right field and sophomore Dorsa recently going from left field to second base. Gallo leads the hitters with 11 home runs, a .530 batting average and 51 RBIs as the cleanup hitter.Nikki Alfano, the lone senior in the young lineup, at shortstop is an ideal leadoff hitter with 30 walks and 50 runs scored. She’s batting .430. Gebhardt, a junior first baseman, has 40 RBIs in the No. 3 spot in the order. Kernan has helped her own pitching with a .400 batting average. She has received support from a solid team defense that also includes juniors Payleigh Behan in center field and Wilton at second base.“It’s all about making plays, [Kernan] getting ahead on the [pitch] count and having patience at the plate,” Rosner said of the showdown against Middletown South. “I think we can hit with anybody in the Shore. The biggest thing is making plays.”A pair of victories and maybe a third one in a state final this weekend for Middletown South would be a sweet finale to a season in which Erbig nailed down his 700th victory. He’s up to 713 coming into this week, which is just eight behind the state’s all-time record.
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