Blue Eagles finish with flourish by Darren Cooper of The Record
SOUTH ORANGE – Caroline Ventor showed bunt. Then she showed what she was made of.
The Immaculate Heart Academy senior outfielder drove home the game-winning run with an eighth-inning double to lift the Blue Eagles past Immaculate Conception, 5-4, and claim the first Tournament of Champions title at Seton Hall University on Friday night.
“It’s amazing, it’s just so surreal right now,” said Ventor, a Wyckoff native, in her first year starting for the Blue Eagles.
Indeed, the entire eight-inning contest was amazing and surreal. On the Immaculate Conception side, you had coach Jeff Horohonich facing the program he helped build. He is now 0-5 against the Blue Eagles, losing three times in softball and twice in basketball.
The Blue Wolves (31-5) nearly had the game won after a stunning two-run home run by Kayla Robert in the sixth inning put them ahead 4-3, but infield mistakes would come back to bite the young Blue Wolves. IHA would score a run in the bottom of the seventh on a throwing error to send the game to extra innings.
IHA (30-4) didn’t appear to have much going in the eighth, but with two outs catcher Mia Recenello would double. That brought Ventor to the plate.
At that point, Ventor hadn’t hit the ball out of the infield. She started every pitch by showing bunt, placing her 33/23 Easton bat across the plate.
“I do the pull back thing because it helps me get my timing down and makes me see the ball better,” she said. “At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t seeing the ball well at all. Since I started to do that, I started to make contact and then I started to drive the ball more.”
“She has got speed,” said IHA Coach Diana Fasano. “In games like this, when you’re trying to figure out what will make it work, I had a feeling….two outs, she had to put the ball in play. I am really happy for the kid. She is a senior, a hard worker, she is just the right kind of kid. She’s a team player and it couldn’t have happened to a better kid.”
Ventor drove a 1-2 outside pitch – she said she didn’t know what type of pitch it was – into the gap and Recenello came home with the winning run.
“I was just trying to make solid contact,” said Ventor. “I got behind in the count and I knew I had to make the next pitch count. I was just so happy that she scored.”
The catalyst for the Blue Eagles the past four years has been outfielder Reese Guevarra, who scored the tying run in the seventh and also had a clutch triple. Lost in IHA’s dominance has been their ability to find fast, intelligent players like the UConn bound Guevarra to lead the way.
“It feels so good to end on a high note,” said Guevarra. “It’s just unreal that it’s all over. As soon as Caroline hit that ball and Mia crossed the plate it was so emotional. This group of seniors has been through so much together.”
For the better part of a decade, IHA has been the signature program for high school softball in New Jersey, and there was a lot of sentiment that it is fitting that they be the team to win the first Tournament of Champions held by the state.
“We’re the first ones….” said Fasano, her voice thick with emotion. “You can’t make it up.”
The last two titles for IHA have come with plenty of emotion. Last year, the narrative was shaped by the death of former Blue Eagles coach Anthony LaRezza months before the season began. LaRezza is still present in and around the IHA program. The team wore ribbons on their jerseys. His motto, “ClickClick” which means having one another’s back is still worn and said.
And LaRezza was one of the biggest proponents of New Jersey starting a Tournament of Champions. The idea that New Jersey’s best softball team should be decided on the field, instead of by a gaggle of sports writers.
Well, this year, there still could be a debate. IHA did win the Tournament of Champions, but did not win the Bergen County title. And there will be people in Ramsey who can say that the Rams beat Immaculate Conception in the county final by nine runs, while IHA had to go extra innings to do so.
That debate is for the days to come. Friday night belonged to the Blue Eagles, once again, soaring to new heights.