In a season where the Johnson softball team has made quite a bit of program history, the ultimate championship awaits.
There’s just one more hurdle for the Crusaders to clear and it will take place on the same field where one of them was already accomplished.
Johnson finds itself in its first state championship game in 20 years after the Central Jersey, Group 2 champion Crusaders held on for a hard-fought 6-5 win over South Jersey, Group 2 champion West Deptford in Tuesday’s Group 2 semifinal played at Rowan University in Glassboro.
Johnson will next face North 1, Group 2 champion Demarest in Friday’s scheduled 5 p.m. Group 2 final at Kean University’s Cougar Field in Union.
“We’ll feel very comfortable playing, practically, in our own back yard,” Johnson’s sixth-season head coach Mike Mancino said.
Last month, Johnson defeated defending champion Governor Livingston 7-0 in the Union County Tournament championship game at Kean, which was the program’s third UCT crown and first since 1981.
Since then the Crusaders have gone on to win the Union County Conference’s Watchung Division title outright after sharing it the past two seasons and then captured their first sectional crown since 1996 and first in CJ, G2.
Now Johnson seeks to add its first state championship to this season’s already impressive list of accomplishments.
Both Johnson (24-8) and Demarest (26-5) are on five-game winning streaks – all state tournament victories.
Johnson began 7-0 before it fell for the first time to Pingry and has a 12-2 record in its last 14 games.
Demarest won its first 20 games before it was defeated for the first time and the Norseman also won their league, capturing the Big North Conference’s National Division crown for the second consecutive season.
However, unlike Johnson, Demarest was not successful in its county tournament. Seeded second in the Bergen County Tournament, the Norsemen were upset by 15th-seeded Dumont 3-2 in first round play May 14.
That was part of a stretch where, after starting 20-0, Demarest lost five of six, including four straight before state tournament play commenced.
For Demarest this is its second time in a state championship game. Demarest captured the Group 3 state championship in 1979 when it defeated Bridgeton in the final.
For Johnson this is the third time the Crusaders will be playing in a state championship game. Johnson lost the 1995 Group 2 final to Delran and the 1996 final to West Deptford, with present GL assistant coach Steve Petruzzelli leading both of those North 2, Group 2 championship teams to Toms River.
Against repeat North 2, Group 2 champion Parsippany in Tuesday night’s Group 2 semifinal at Montclair State University, Demarest tied the game at 4-4 with a run in the bottom of the fifth after Parsippany scored three times in the top of the fifth to take a 4-3 lead.
Demarest then broke the game open with a six-run sixth. Claudia Mattes produced the game-winning hit, a one-out RBI-single that made the score 5-4. Later in the inning, Veronica Corcoron drove in two important insurance runs with a single.
Winning pitcher, sophomore right hander MacKenzie McGrath, allowed two earned runs on six hits, while striking out 10 and walking two.
In her team’s 3-1 sectional final home win against Mahwah, McGrath tossed a four-hitter, striking out nine, walking none and retiring the final 13 batters.
Veronica Corcoran ended the game when she connected on a two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth.
Twin sisters Veronica – senior shortstop – and Victoria – senior center fielder – bat first and second in the Demarest lineup.
“The Corcoran sisters are tough,” Mancino said. “Demarest is another one of those really solid teams.”
Johnson took a 6-1 lead against West Deptford in the top of the seventh when junior pitcher Gianna Randazza slugged a three-run homer.
“Gianna got a pitch she could hit and it turned out that we needed those runs,” Mancino said.
You never know if you have a big enough lead until, perhaps, the bottom of the seventh.
Johnson found that out quickly Tuesday after, with two outs, Jessica Linquist slugged a grand slam that brought West Deptford to within a run at 6-5.
“Sometimes home runs are rally-killers,” Mancino said.
Following a double that put the tying run at second and sent the winning run up to the plate, Randazza retired the next batter to send Johnson to its third state championship game.
Johnson senior Gabby Zatko, who will attend the University of Delaware, led off the game with a double, which was her 100th career hit. Randazza then drove in the game’s first run with a single, while Johnson scored two more times in the first inning to start the game with a 3-0 lead.
There was no more scoring until West Deptford finally got on the board with a single run in the bottom of the sixth to pull to within 3-1.
Randazza, who tossed a five-hitter, finished with nine strikeouts, including seven in the first three innings.
Johnson produced what was reported as nine hits, with Randazza and senior Stephanie Visconti, who will attend Monmouth University, banging out two and Nicole Cassano, Bailey Rosenmeier, Jennifer Tinger, Gabby Zatko and Victoria Zatko one.
In the team’s 6-2 sectional final win at home over Voorhees, it was reported that Johnson had 10 hits, including three from Visconti, two from Randazza and one each from Shannon Brogan, Cassano, Rosenmeier, Tinger and Gabby Zatko.
Randazza hurled an eight-hitter, striking out five and walking two.
Johnson’s eight losses have come to four Group 4 schools – Bridgewater-Raritan twice (once at Mount St. Dominic), Hunterdon Central and Elizabeth (only division loss) and to four Non-Public, A opponents – Pingry, Pope John of Sparta, Lodi Immaculate and St. John Vianney of Holmdel.
Brogan, a junior, hit a leadoff double in Johnson’s 4-2 sectional semifinal win at Bordentown for her 100th career hit.
Brogan was the second of three Johnson players to reach 100 career hits this season, with Randazza the first to do so in Johnson’s 17-7 April 5 conference-crossover home win over eventual Mountain Division champion and North 2, Group 1 champ Roselle Park.
Mancino said that he felt a big weight was lifted when Johnson won the UCT.
“We had our troubles with the local tournaments in the past,” Mancino said. “So when we won the county tournament it was a relief. We then began to refocus and put our attention toward what we are playing for now.”
Johnson has won its first county title in 35 years, won a division title outright after sharing one the past two years and then won its first sectional title and group semifinal game in 20 years.
Is the program’s first state championship next?
We shall see!
CENTRAL JERSEY, GROUP 2 CHAMPIONS
JOHNSON CRUSADERS (24-8)
Lineup vs. South Jersey champion West Deptford:
Shannon Brogan, junior shortstop
Nicole Cassano, sophomore
Mackenzie Purcell, sophomore
Gianna Randazza, junior RH pitcher (15-5)
Bailey Rosenmeier, freshman
Jennifer Tinger, sophomore
Stephanie Visconti, senior
Gabby Zatko, senior
Victoria Zatko, freshman third baseman
Head coach: Mike Mancino
NORTH 1, GROUP 2 CHAMPIONS
DEMAREST NORSEMAN (26-5)
Lineup vs. North 2 champion Parsippany:
Veronica Corcoran, senior shortstop
Victoria Corcoran, senior center fielder
Michelle Diehl, junior right fielder
Meadow Garcia, freshman courtesy runner
Ellen Hamlin, sophomore left fielder
Sam Maniscalco, senior second baseman
Claudia Mattes, junior designated player
MacKenzie McGrath, sophomore RH pitcher (24-5)
Pam Ng, senior third baseman
Haley Pontillo, senior catcher
Jessica Muti, senior first baseman
Head coach: Keith Johnson