MAYS LANDING — When the 12th-seeded Middle Township Panthers rallied to take a 6-3 lead in the top of the 10th inning in the opening round of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 2 softball playoffs on Tuesday afternoon, it looked as though Oakcrest starting pitcher Abigail Tunney might need an intravenous injection into her right arm to keep going. She had thrown well more than 100 pitches to that point — and was probably closer to 200.

Somehow, though, she summoned the energy for a strikeout to end that inning, her teammates rallied for three runs in the bottom of the 10th to tie the game at 6, and Tunney came up with a chance to end the game in the bottom of the 11th.

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(She wiggled out of the top of that frame, not allowing a run even though Middle started with a runner at second via the international tiebreaker rule — something most of the players on both teams were not even aware existed. They were in uncharted territory.)

Tunney drove a fastball from Middle’s Charlotte Selover — who had also pitched all 11 innings — into the gap in right-center field that chased home Jayda Shehadi with the game-winning run in Oakcrest’s 7-6 victory. The Falcons mobbed Tunney near third base after her walkoff double and everyone fell to the ground, mostly from pure exhaustion from a game that see-sawed back and forth until even the fans were dizzy.

“Empty tank. Empty tank,” a breathless Tunney said after the dust had settled. “I think it was just all my team’s intensity and hyping me up when I pitched a strike or when I struck somebody out (that kept me going). The people on the sidelines cheering, it was great. I thought it was never going to end, honestly, but we got through it. I’m tired, but it was worth it, for sure.

“I was just trying to get a base hit — anything to get on base,” the junior added. “I just wanted to hit the ball. It was great. It was a feeling like I’ve never felt before. Since I was a freshman we’ve never won a playoff game so I think it’s great that we’re going to move on to the second round.”

Oakcrest, the No. 5 seed, advances to face either No. 13 Cinnaminson or No. 4 Delran in Friday’s quarterfinal round.

“At the end, I knew the potential was there. The pressure was something we struggled with at the beginning, but it was really nice to see them relax and do what they needed to do toward the end. my hat’s off to Middle — that was one of the toughest games, I think, in my coaching career,” said Oakcrest skipper Jason Hearn. “(Selover) was throwing strikes, painting the corners and she’s got a funky windup. When you get to disguising your pitches the way you’re releasing it, it’s hard for even some of the best hitters to make the adjustment. They’ve played some solid games against some solid opponents so I knew today was going to be tough. But I didn’t know it was going to be THAT tough. Middle and us usually go head-to-head in the same division, but we’re not in the same division this year. We usually split, or one year we’ll take two or another year they’ll take two — so I was ready for a good game. They are always somebody who is going to battle and be that needle in your side, and they were. They came out fired up, intense at the beginning of the game and I think that kind of put us on our heels, put the pressure back on us. We’re the higher seed so the pressure is on us. I thought I had the girls in the right mindset, but they felt (the pressure) right away because of Middle’s intensity. So, I give them all the props, they were ready.”

Middle (8-14) jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first as the Panthers loaded the bases on an infield single from Selover and a pair of errors. Emma Messer then drew a walk to push the first run across, and the Panthers added to their lead in the third as both Selover and Sayde Nichols scampered home on an infield single off the bat of Kailyn Jamison. Suddenly, the No. 12 seed had a 3-0 lead and the Falcons (13-9) were reeling.

“I was trying not to give up (early on). I was trying to hype up all my teammates to not give up, we’re still in this. We’re only down 3-1 and we’ve done it before, we’ve come back,” said Tunney, who’s older sister, Emily, also pitched for the Falcons a few years ago. “I told them we came back before and we can do it again, we just had to get hyped up.”

Oakcrest got a run back in the sixth as Naya Rivera tripled to right and jogged home on Izabella Williamson’s double inside the first-base bag. The Falcons then tied the game at 3 in the bottom of the seventh on an RBI double by Tunney and a sacrifice fly from Madison Pell that plated Tunney.

In the 10th, the Panthers scratched across three runs to take a 6-3 lead. Nichols laced an RBI single and Jamison’s double to left made it 5-3. Abby Dickson then poked a run-scoring single to right, but the Falcons roared back with three runs in their half of the 10th, including two that scored on infield errors.

That set the stage for Tunney’s heroics in the bottom of the 11th.

“I was really nervous because this was my first game back from my injury. Being the (leadoff batter) I felt like I had to make up for missing all those games. I’m happy that our team kept fighting the whole game and didn’t give up at all. (My ankle) still hurts but I’m pushing through it,” said Shehadi, who missed two weeks with an ankle injury. “I was on second base and I said (to myself) ‘if Abigail hits it, just run.’ She was on fire hitting, she cracked that ball and I was like, ‘just go! Run!’ I got there in time, thank God. It feels good to be able to play another round of playoffs.”

Hearn couldn’t say enough about Tunney’s effort inside the circle. She allowed nine hits but struck out 13, including striking out the side in two different innings, and kept her team in the game long enough for the Falcons to make two comebacks.

“She’s pitched probably 2,200 pitches this year; she’s pitched 130 innings — she’s been our workhorse. She’s been our backbone. Without her, we’re 0-22,” Hearn said. “She’s dynamite. And she has a good group of friends and teammates who have been playing together for a long time, so we were able to overcome a lot of youth in the program this year. We had to overcome a lot of things and they have been battling all year. She was getting better as that game went on. It was just awesome to watch.”

Shehadi echoed those sentiments.

“This whole season she’s been the backbone of this team. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know what we’d do.”

What’s next: Oakcrest will either host No. 13 Cinnaminson on Friday or travel to No. 4 Delran. Game time TBD.

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

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