Toms River, NJ- For the first time in school history, the Jackson Liberty Lions softball team brought home the Ocean County Tournament Championship with a dramatic 9-7 victory over Donovan Catholic Wednesday night.  It took eight years for the Lions to raise the OCT hardware but it was well worth the wait.

Jackson Liberty OCT Softball Champions (photo Eric Braun)

Jackson Liberty who was the #2 seed in the tournament has been on a tear all season long jumping out to a record of 17-2 overall and 12-1 in B-South heading into the Ocean County Tournament Championship game. The Lions cruised through the OCT opening rounds beating Point Pleasant Boro 7-1, Toms River South 14-0 and Toms River North 5-0, before knocking off a very talented and fighter in Donovan Catholic.

Donovan Catholic, the #5 seed, drew a harder road to the finals, which was their second in school history. Donovan held on for a 1-0 win over #12 seed Brick Memorial, then knocked off defending champion Pinelands 3-1 and beat #1 seed Lacey in the semi finals 6-5.

Thanks to Mother Nature Liberty had to wait an additional couple of weeks for the other side of the bracket to finish their games and then wasted no time getting runs on the board.

After the game coach Laura Borelli when asked about the time off between their semifinal game and the finals added “It was a test of patience for all of us waiting a couple weeks to get the game in finally, but it was worth the wait.”

Ashley Eckett got the Lions on the board in the first inning after she drew a lead off walk, moved to second on a single to center off the bat of Brianna Holder and then to third when Kayla Conners drew a bases loaded walk.

Donovan Catholic had a chance to get out of trouble with no runs when Chelsea Czapkowski grounded to short for what appeared to be an easy out at home but the ball was bobbled and all runners were safe, and Eckett crossed the plate for a 1-0 lead. Jackson Liberty would add another run when Kayla Hayes drew another walk to score Conners to take 2-0 lead heading to the top of the second.

The Lions were not done, after sophomore pitcher Meghan Conroy shut the Donovan offense with two strikeouts in the top of the second, Liberty posted three more runs in the bottom of the inning.

After two strikeouts to start the Lions inning, Holder and Conners singled to center to setup first and second with two outs. Czapkowski stepped up with an RBI single to center and moved to second on a late throw to the plate. Conroy would step to the plate and help her own cause by lacing a shot to right center to score both runners and give Liberty a 5-0 lead heading into the third inning.

Conroy when asked about her two out hit added “even though we got up early we knew Donovan was a great hitting team and they were going to fight back so we had to keep hitting and scoring, I was just happy to contribute at the plate in that spot.”

Donovan Catholic would finally answer the Lions run with a run of their own in the top of the third inning. With one out, Lindsay Nelson hit a shot to deep in the shortstop hole that was stopped by Conners but had to eat the throw due to Nelson’s speed out of the box. Lindsay Hay beat out an infield single to third that set up the first scoring threat for Griffins. Amanda MacBurnie singled to center scoring Nelson, but a heads up play by the Lions defense cutoff the throw to home and got Hay trying to move to third. After a ground to end the inning, Jackson Liberty’s lead was cut to 5-1.

The Lions answered the Griffins scoring with four more runs in the bottom of the third inning to push their lead to 9-1. Jackson Liberty would plate four runs on just two hits and benefited from and error and two walks. Holder, Conners, Czapkowski and Conroy all chipped in with RBI at bats to get the Lions thinking of ending the game with a 10-run Mercy Rule.

After the Griffins went down in order in the fourth inning and the Lions held scoreless in the bottom of the inning, Donovan Catholic began their fight back into the game. With one out, Nelson singled to right center and moved to third after Liberty’s Conroy bobbled and threw the ball away on a hit back to her from Hay to setup second and third with one out. The next batter would ground out to second unable to score either runner, but Kati Vazquez answered the call for Donovan Catholic and singled to right scoring both runners and cut the lead to 9-3.

Donovan Catholic’s defense and pitching from Nelson would settle down and hold the Lions offense scoreless for the rest of the game going three up and three down in both innings that included three strikeouts.

Donovan Catholic would add some late game drama to this final when they scored four runs in the top of the sixth inning. Mya Lamicella would leadoff the inning reaching on an error by the shortstop. Lamicella would advance to second on a groundout from Halie DeCarlo and later score on an RBI groundout by Jenna Cauldwell to make it 9-4. Then the dramatics started for the Griffins. Alexa Pagano reach on an error, Nelson singled to left and Hay launched a 3-run homer over the left field wall to pull the Griffins to with 2 and trailed Jackson Liberty 9-7.

The Lions ace would settle down and regroup to get the final out and head to the seventh inning needing just three outs for Jackson Liberty’s first ever OCT Championship. Conroy wasted no time and got the first batter to ground out to third. Followed by a ground out the short and then a heads up play by Eckett at second who secured the grounder that got past the Annabelle Santino at first and beat the runner to the bag for the final out of the game.

Afterwards a composed, yet jubilant Conroy added “I knew I was still in good shape because I have trust and faith in myself and in teammates to get this done since we still had a two run lead.”

Coach Borelli when asked about the composure of her sophomore pitcher to pitch Liberty to their first ever OCT Championship added “we have had a lot of great success here, but the performance the Meghan showed tonight and this entire season is something special to watch, she doesn’t act like a sophomore but a veteran leader both on and off the field…she is a special person and player.”

Writer and photographer Eric Braun, email brauntenj@gmail.com and https://ericbraunphotography.smugmug.com