When the curtain on the drama that unfolded on the Center Moriches High School softball field finally fell, Red Devils coach Rich Roberts heaved a sigh of relief. His counterpart, Bishop McGann-Mercy’s Jackie Zilnicki, agonized over what might have been.
McGann-Mercy was one out away from pulling off an upset and winning the Suffolk County League VII game, which was full of chills and thrills. But Center Moriches is undefeated for a reason. The Red Devils can hit the ball and they have a knack for coming through under pressure.
After scoring two runs in a two-out rally to tie the score in the seventh inning, Center Moriches won it in the eighth. With two runners in scoring position and two outs, Caroline Casey (3 for 5, two runs batted in) connected for a drive to deep center field. At first it seemed as if McGann-Mercy’s Jamie Lessard might have a play on the ball, but it fell beyond her reach, close to the fence. Gina Reese charged home for the winning run in a 7-6 Center Moriches triumph. The Red Devils (9-0, 9-0) maintained their spotless record.
“I think we’re disappointed, but we’re very proud of ourselves because we’ve never come this close to Center Moriches before,” said McGann-Mercy third baseman Kate Wilkie.
Reese had started off the inning with a hit up the middle as shortstop Sarah Penny and second baseman Margaret Terry collided while reaching for the ball. Cierra Smith (3 for 4, RBI) took first base on a bunt single before pitcher Isabella Sorgi retired the next two batters, setting the stage for Casey’s heroics.
McGann-Mercy catcher Ali Hulse (3 for 5) said she knew her team could give Center Moriches, which reached the state semifinals two years ago and was a county finalist last year, a scare. “I did,” she said. “Coming into the game, we got everyone so pumped up, so riled up, and we were so ready to win.”
So was Center Moriches, though.
McGann-Mercy (6-3, 6-3) snapped a 4-4 tie in the seventh. A two-out popup by Sorgi was dropped when second baseman Alex Andersen and first baseman Erin Copozzi bumped into each other. The ball fell to the ground, allowing Hulse and Terry to score.
Was it a gift from the softball gods?
If it was, it was quickly taken back. Center Moriches responded in the bottom half of the inning, but not before the first two batters made out, the second on a nasty line drive that Sorgi gloved. Cassy Smith drove a double off the center-field fence on a fly. Copozzi (3 for 4, two RBIs) doubled home one run and Megan Ricci singled in another, making it 6-6.
The teams will play two more times, on April 28 in Center Moriches and on May 10 in Riverhead.
The performance by McGann-Mercy spoke volumes about how far the Monarchs have come under their first-year coach, Zilnicki.
“I thought they were a good team last year, but they obviously improved dramatically,” Center Moriches coach Rich Roberts said. “They play every pitch hard. You can see the intensity.”
How good are the Monarchs?
“We have great offense, defense, baserunning, pitching, everything,” said Wilkie, who noted that her team took something away from the loss. “I knew we were a really good team, but this win — this almost win — was really good for our team.”
Zilnicki, a former Riverhead High School player, found herself coaching against her former high school coach, Bob Fox, who is now an assistant coach for Center Moriches. The loss may have stung because McGann-Mercy was so close to pulling off an upset, but at least Zilnicki could take consolation in how well her team played.
“We have a lot of good players on the team and every day they’re working hard,” Zilnicki said. “They’re coming to practice, working hard. They’re not settling, and they know they can be great, and I keep instilling it in them that we are good, and they’re starting to believe it.”
So is the rest of League VII.
Photo caption: Center Moriches assistant coach Bob Fox and Bishop McGann-Mercy coach Jackie Zilnicki, who played for Fox when she attended Riverhead High School, share a laugh before the game. (Credit: Bob Liepa)