Lagroteria’s heroics lift EHT softball to sectional final
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Decades from now, it will simply be known as "The Catch."
With two outs in the top of the seventh inning of the South Jersey Group 4 semifinals, Egg Harbor Township left fielder Bri Lagroteria made a play that will be etched in the memory of Eagles softball fans for years to come.
Fourth-seeded Rancocas Valley was trailing 4-3 and down to its final out when first baseman Julie Contravo launched a shot deep into the gap in left-center field. But Lagroteria tracked it down and made a tremendous diving catch that ended the game. The 4-3 win vaulted the top-seeded Eagles into the sectional championship game against No. 2 Eastern Regional, a 4-2 winner over Cherokee.
"I'm so happy. I'm lost for words right now. I'm so proud of every person on this team right now. As soon as that ball came off the bat, I knew I wanted it and had to give my all to catch it. It hurt (when I hit the ground) but I knew I had it all the way. I felt it hit my glove, then I hit the ground and heard everybody cheering, and that's the best feeling in the world. And I would not want to do it with any other team," Lagroteria said. "As soon as I hit the ground, I just laid there and took it all in. It was the most amazing feeling. I really have no words to describe it."
Center fielder Emily MacNeil had a birds-eye view of Lagroteria's amazing catch. She said she thought Lagroteria injured herself after crash-landing to the ground.
"Our coaches have been preaching to us for years to lay out because you might have to for a game-winning catch. And it was. I had full trust in her. She laid out and caught it, and when I got over to her she was laying on the ground crying. I screamed to the coach that she was hurt, and then she just said, 'I think we just won,'" MacNeil said. "It was unbelievable, honestly. There's nothing better I could wish for her."
Catcher Kate Korte said she felt a lump in her throat when she realized how hard Contravo hit the ball. She was hoping for a miracle catch — and Lagroteria delivered.
"As soon as it hit the bat, I was like, 'oh...crap.' 'oh, crap, oh, crap, oh crap!' But Bri is one of our best outfielders and she has great range. She's been one of my best friends for years," Korte said. "When I saw her leave her feet I was just saying to myself, 'please, please, please.' And when I saw it go into her glove I knew she would hold onto it."
"I thought she definitely had a shot at it. She's saved us many times this year because she has wheels. Was I expecting her to have a full-out, diving catch? No, because normally she is able to field it (without diving)," Eagles coach Mary Dunlap said. "But, regardless, she got there, she caught it, and it was a great way to end the game. You make a catch like that, we're going to go all the way. That's definitely a play people will be talking about for a long time."
Rancocas Valley (16-8) jumped out to a 3-0 lead with a rally in the top of the third as Madelyn Vetz started things off with a slap double over EHT right fielder Marissa Varela's head. Jalian Young followed with a slap single up the middle, then stole second to put runners at second and third with no outs against EHT star pitcher Nicole Wisser. Shyla Pastore knocked in Vetz with an RBI groundout and Young raced home on a bunt by Shauna Nuss to give the Red Devils a 2-0 lead.
Pitcher Angie Dunphy helped her own cause by driving in a run with a double down the left-field line to make it 3-0. Rancocas Valley threatened later in the inning, loading the bases on a pair of walks, but Wisser was able to work out of the jam by getting a ground out.
EHT struggled through the first three innings against Dunphy, a control pitcher who frustrated the Eagles' lineup with a variety of speeds and locations.
"It was hard. A lot of pitchers don't necessarily have speed, but they have spin. She was one of those pitchers," Korte said. "She was keeping up off balance and we were popping up a lot. But once we started to get contact, we started to getting a hold of her."
"I was just telling them to stay calm, relaxed and focused. We're a great team when we play relaxed, and that's been a philosophy we've had all year long," Dunlap said. "We just tried to keep them in the game. They're a tough team and they want to win. It's all about heart, and they proved that today."
Egg Harbor Township (22-0) chipped away with two runs in the fourth and another in the fifth. In the fourth, Korte slammed an RBI double to left and Miranda Cincotti followed with a run-scoring single up the middle off the glove of Dunphy. The Eagles tied the game at 3 in the fifth when Varela and Lagroteria drew consecutive walks and Varela came home on Tori Szrom's single up the middle.
The Eagles scored the go-ahead run in the sixth after Szrom came on in relief of Wisser to get EHT out of a jam in the top of the inning. Korte started the bottom of the sixth by reaching on an infield single, was sacrificed to second by Cincotti, and sped home on a single up the middle by MacNeil. Szrom retired the first two batters of the Rancocas Valley seventh on a pop-up and groundout before Lagroteria's heroics sealed the win.
"It feels great. Knowing that it was a team effort makes it the best thing ever. Bri out there with the diving catch, Tori coming on in relief, Emily with the big hit," Korte said. "As a senior, I've been on this team for four years and I've seen us come back before. But this team is like no other team before. This year, whenever we fell behind, we knew we had work to do and we would fight for it. So I knew it wasn't over."
Korte said the Eagles are ecstatic about finally having the chance to play for a sectional title after creeping closer and closer the past few seasons.
"This is the first time we've made it since 1993, or something crazy like that. We got down, but we fought back, and as soon as we started fighting we were like, OK, here we go, this is it. We can't wait (for the championship)," Korte said. "I'm excited to take on that challenge with my teammates."
"My eighth grade year, they lost in the first round, my freshman year we lost in the second round, last year in the third round, and now we're going to the finals," said MacNeil, a junior. "We've been saying, 'guys, we're not here for nothing. We're 21-0 so we deserve to be here, so let's take it all the way.'"
Dunlap knows Eastern presents perhaps EHT's most difficult challenge all year.
"It gets tougher each game. That's what we told them, and that's what they should expect," she said. "We'll see what happens against Eastern."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays