LANOKA HARBOR — Through the first four innings of Thursday's South Jersey Group 3 championship game, fifth-seeded Mainland Regional was in the driver's seat. Bailey Arena was twirling a no-hitter, and the offense put up three runs in the top of the second to take a 3-0 lead. But the third-seeded Lacey Township Lions lived up to their nickname, roaring back for a 7-3 victory that sealed the school's first sectional softball championship.

Lacey loaded the bases in the bottom of the fifth and cut the deficit to 3-1 when Caitlyn Hughes knocked in Kelly Fleck with an RBI groundout. Arena was able to wiggle out of the jam when third baseman Kenzie Mindish snared a sharp line drive off the bat of Lions leadoff hitter Kayla Kohout.

But Lacey had finally gained some confidence at the plate, and in the bottom of the sixth the Lions staged a 6-run rally that put them in front for good.

"Oh, my goodness. This was a very good team we played. They had a very good pitcher and we were off a little bit with some things. It took us some time to adjust, but you saw what happened in the sixth inning. For an old guy like me, I can't wait that long. And I didn't take my blood pressure medicine this morning. But, let me tell you, this is what this sport is all about — the excitement. It's never over until it's over, what Yogi Berra used to say," said Lacey head coach Tom Faulkner. "This is the first South Jersey Group 3 championship for Lacey Township High School softball, it's the first time we've surpassed 18 wins — we're at 21 right now. It's been a special season. The girls are sky high right now. It was a total team effort. I'm so proud of them, how they plug away every day at practice. They played the game of their career."

The Mustangs (18-10) were up against one of the Shore Conference's best pitchers in Chelsea Howard, but put together a three-run rally in the second to jump out to an early lead. Shannon Bennett ripped an RBI single off Howard's glove to plate Kathryn Hutton with the game's first run, and Mackenzie Brennan followed with a two-run single to left that scored Arena and Gabby Monzo. Mainland loaded the bases again on a walk to Mindish, but Howard buckled down and got a strikeout to end the threat. Limiting the Mustangs to just three runs was huge for Howard, who held Mainland off the board the rest of the way.

Lacey Township players celebrate after the Lions came from behind to beat Mainland, 7-3, to win the South Jersey Group 3 title on Thursday in Lanoka Harbor. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O'Sullivan)

"She's very mature. She's a junior, but she has the heart and soul of a much older athlete and doesn't get rattled," Faulkner said of Howard. "She just plugs ahead and works harder and harder until she finds that strike zone. She waits for her team to support her, and that's what happens."

"We had our ups and downs during the season, but got it together when it really mattered. I'm proud of Bailey coming in and pitching. I'm proud of the team. The team we lost to is a good team. They earned it today. We didn't give it away, that's for sure," said Mainland coach Frank Marascio. "We had a little trouble finding the strike zone a little bit in that one inning, and that hurt us, but this only makes us hungrier to come out here next year and try to get back here and get the job done."

Mainland had been leaning on Arena, a sophomore second baseman, late in the season after starting pitcher Gillian McCarthy, also a sophomore, went down with an injury. Arena filled in admirably, leading the Mustangs to three straight playoff wins, but Lacey finally got to her in the bottom of the sixth.

A pair of singles sandwiching a walk loaded the bases, and Lacey (21-6) tied the game, 3-3, on a walk to Lindsay Opacity and a single by Elie Wright. The big blow came from the next batter, Hughes, who stroked a two-run double to the fence in right-center to give the Lions a 5-3 lead. Monica Brignola followed with an RBI single to right and Kohout's sacrifice fly to left pushed the lead to 7-3. Howard set the Mustangs down in order in the seventh to seal the win.

"We just had to play hard all the way through. That's always my mindset, and I try to tell everyone else that. I think everybody did play hard all the way through. That was our goal," said Mainland first baseman Meredith Miller. "It was awesome for (Bailey) to step up in Gillian's spot. I know Gillian wanted to pitch, but Bailey did a really good job stepping in and getting us to the playoffs."

Marascio said the Mustangs wouldn't have been in position to compete for a sectional title without the effort Arena turned in the past few weeks.

"She was the workhorse. My hat's off to her. They just hit the ball in places we weren't. In other games, they hit the ball to us, and that's just the way this game goes sometimes," Marascio said. "But I'm really proud of her. She came in at the beginning of the year not knowing she was going to get this much work, but to become 11-5 on the season for someone we thought was going to be our second pitcher, we'll take it. That showed a lot of depth in our team and a lot of heart in our team. I couldn't be more proud of her."

The loss closed the careers of Mainland's three seniors — Mindish, Hutton and Rachel Hartlage.

"They were the rock this season, keeping all the girls intact and making this run. You don't make this kind of run with all young kids," Marascio said. "The seniors came through and showed they wanted to win so badly, and they showed that we could.

"I hope they come back (to see us), we all love them," said Miller, a junior. "They all played really well, and we're going to miss them."

Contact Dave O'Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays