By Brian Deakyne
OCEAN — It wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t pretty, but the Middletown North softball team got the job done.
Sophomore pitcher Audrie Thomas re-entered the game in the seventh inning, inheriting runners on first and second and no outs. Thomas yielded one run, but got the potential tying-run caught in a run-down between second and third and struck out the final batter she faced to help the Lions preserve a one-run win, topping Ocean Township, 5-4, last Saturday morning.
Thomas came in to replace sophomore pitcher Kristi Miceli, who pitched in relief of Thomas earlier, and threw a scoreless sixth inning before walking the first two batters to open her second inning.
“Today is a total team effort. Everyone has a role on this team and once we accept that role, we are going to be very good,” Middletown North head coach Lisa Smith said.
After playing scoreless through four innings, the Lions connected on back-to-back two-run hits by junior Julie Gross and freshman Quinn Thorton in the top of the fifth inning. Middletown North loaded the bases with a leadoff walk by Thomas, and junior Vanessa Soler and freshman Nikki Alfano both reached base on bunt attempts.
After senior Victoria Zechman struck out, Gross slipped a single into right field to score Thomas and Soler and Thorton ripped a double into right-center field to bring home Alfano and Gross, putting the Lions on top, 4-0.
“We’ve been struggling offensively, and today we came up in the clutch with some big hits,” Smith said. “It really shows a lot about this team, they didn’t give up in pressure situations”
The Spartans answered back in the bottom half of the fifth inning, rocking back-to-back doubles on Thomas to score three runs. Thomas worked out of trouble without surrendering the lead, stranding a runner on second base.
Miceli came in for the sixth inning, walking two batters but getting out of trouble and leaving Ocean Township runners on first and second.
The Lions added an insurance run in the top of the seventh inning when Miceli ripped a single down the third-base-line. The ball bounced out of bounds after the third basemen struggled to make a play, plating pinch-runner Kelly Rasmussen. Thorton opened the inning with her second double of the game, blasting a pitch to deep right field, and setting up the eventual winning run.
“We’ve been one hit away in just about every game. It was nice to see the girls came through. Julie Gross came through with a double and Quinn Thorton came through with a double, those are the kids that we need to hit,” Smith said.
Alfano, batting leadoff, had a strong day for the Lions finishing three-for-four. In her first two at-bats, Alfano advanced to scoring position but was stranded there in the first and third innings.
Thomas evaded trouble in the third and fourth innings on the mound, not allowing leadoff base-runners to turn into runs. In the third, the Lions turned a sacrifice bunt attempt into a double play as Alfano whipped the ball to Gross, who caught the second runner on her way to third base.
An inning later, Thomas surrendered a leadoff double, but worked around it, catching a line drive, and inducing a pop out and a fly out to left field to end the inning.
Thomas finished with six innings pitched, allowing three earned runs on five hits, striking out four batters and walking two more.
“It’s going to be a real learning experience for [Audrie]. Her confidence is going to build as the season goes. She’s a sophomore, it’s the first year that she’s been on the mound for us. With Audrie Thomas and Kristi Miceli, we are going to use them as much as we possibly can,” Smith said.
Thorton finished two-for-four with two doubles and two RBI.