Johnson softball was 1 out away 20 years ago – a look back at the 1996 UCT softball championship game

Editor’s note: JR Parachini covered the 1996 softball Union County Tournament championship game at Linden’s Memorial Field, which turned out to be the agony of defeat for the Johnson Regional Crusaders and the thrill of yet another championship victory for the five-time defending champion Union Farmers.
The Johnson softball team last won the Union County Tournament 35 years ago.
It was for the second time and also the second time in three years after the Crusaders captured the fourth tournament in 1979.
Not a bad start.
Although it’s been three-and-a-half decades since Johnson took home the trophy, it was 20 years ago when they came oh so close.
One out away. Two strikes away to be even more precise.
That was before five-time defending champion Union staged a 1986-Mets-like rally to tie the game and then win it  – all in the final inning – by the final score of 4-3.
Johnson head coach Steve Petruzzelli – now head coach Mike Roof’s assistant at Governor Livingston  – was with his team to my right as I was standing behind the home plate fence, chronicling what was going on that Saturday night at Linden’s Memorial Field.
Petruzzelli guided the Johnson Regional boys’ basketball team to the 1981 UCT championship and in 1995 guided Johnson’s softball team to the Group 2 state championship game after the Crusaders captured the North 2, Group 2 title.
Petruzzelli would lead Johnson to another N2, G2 title and a second straight appearance in the Group 2 state championship game later that 1996 season.
However, in between, it wasn’t meant to be for Johnson to win its first county championship in 15 years.
In the final this season for the first time since that 1996 campaign, Johnson – the top seed – will get another opportunity to bring home the trophy on Saturday, May 14 when it faces second-seeded and defending champion GL at Kean University’s Cougar Field in Union. First pitch is set for 1 p.m., following the junior varsity championship game between second seed GL and top seed Cranford.
Below is what I wrote in our company’s Union Leader and Clark Leader weekly newspapers 20 years ago about one of the most memorable Union County high school sporting events I ever covered in person.
Top of the seventh. Two outs and runners on second and third.
Union is trailing Johnson Regional 3-1 in last Saturday night’s Union County Tournament championship game at Linden’s Memorial Field.
Union has a 23-game UCT winning streak on the line. The Farmers have won the championship five years in a row and are seeking – what a sign on the dugout fence clearly displays – a Six-Peat.
Up steps leadoff batter Kathy Pellerito, Union’s more-than-capable third bsaeman the past two seasons. Pellerito is 0-for-3 against Johnson sophomore right hander Karen Kolmos, having been retired in the first and fourth innings before reaching on an error and scoring Union’s first run in the top of the sixth after Johnson got out to a 3-0 lead.
Pellerito takes the first pitch for strike one. Union, down to its final out, is now down to its final two strikes.
Both sideline crowds are silent. Coaches from both teams are pacing back and forth, first-year Union head coach Chris Flinn concentrating as his team’s third base coach, Johnson head coach Steve Petruzzelli kneeling down in front of his team’s dugout chwing on a fingernail.
Kolmos gets set and delivers the second pitch to Pellerito. This time the diminutive standout athlete takes a level swing and belts a line drive past Johnson second baseman Lisa Muller.
In comes Tara Coon from third base. In comes pinch-runner Fran Pellerito, Kathy’s younger sister, from second base. The game is tied at 3-3.
Union fans are ecstatic. Johnson was one out way from its first softball county championship since 1981, the same year Petruzzelli coached the Johnson boys’ basketball team to its only county title.
So after Coon reached on an infield error and freshman first baseman Kelly Ford came through with her second hit of the game, Union managed to tie the game at 3-3 with Pellerito’s clutch hit.
“I was nervous,” Pellerito said after the game. “I knew that I had to do it for the team.”
Michele White followed Pellerito’s heroics by reaching on an infield single. Pellerito then moved to third before Laura Labonia wacked a shot over the center fielder’s head that bounced off the fence.
Pellerito came around to score the go-ahead and what would be the winning run before White was thrown out at the plate for the last out.
With Union ahead 4-3 and Tara Tumminello on second base with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Labonia wound up and fired a fastball past Kelly Ciccotelli for her eighth strikeout of the game and another county championship belonged to the Farmers.
It was their record sixth straight and ninth overall at the time. Union still has the most titles, now with 11.
Johnson carried a 3-0 lead against Union into the top of the sixth.
Kolmos was in complete control and had allowed only two hits through the first five innings.
“She’s a very good pitcher, but it looked like she was getting tired toward the end,” Flinn said.
Kolmos, who shared pitching duties with Kelly Mulligan, slipped to 8-2 with the defeat and Johnson to 17-2. Kolmos allowed four runs – all unearned – on six hits, while striking out two and walking none.
Union improved to 22-3 with its 11th straight victory. Labonia improved her three-year varsity record to 70-7 with the win, allowing three hits, striking out eight and walking none. All three runs she allowed were also unearned.
Union also won its 24th straight UCT game, its last loss in county competition coming to Westfield by the score of 3-0 in the 1990 final. Labonia, who would go on to win 96 games before graduating in 1997, improved to 12-0 in UCT play.
Union’s first run – produced in the top of the sixth – came as a result of three consecutive Johnson errors.
“We felt a lot better about our chances after getting that first run,” Pellerito said.