RAMSEY – Alexia Russo paused to collect herself as she headed back to the batter’s box, perhaps a blade of grass preventing her from a bottom-of-the-eighth, leadoff triple down the right field line as Saddle Brook and Secaucus seesawed toward a trip to a state title game.
“I think a lot of people thought that was fair,” Russo said. “I knew that I couldn’t let that get me down.”
Instead, Russo worked out a full-count walk, then scored the winning run from first on Katie Garbarino’s sacrifice bunt as Saddle Brook rallied from an early three-run deficit to win the Group 1 softball semifinal, 6-5, Tuesday at Tisdale School.
Saddle Brook (28-3) will attempt to win its first state title in its fifth try when it faces Haddon Heights on Saturday in Toms River. Haddon Heights defeated Florence, 5-1, in the other semifinal Tuesday.
Secaucus (24-7) had its 14-game winning streak snapped.
“It’s a shame someone had to lose,” Secaucus coach Cherryl Bott said. “Them getting as far as they got, I couldn’t be prouder. No regrets.”
Not after the season her team had. Secaucus won the Hudson County tournament, then won the North 2 section with a 1-0 victory over Whippany Park, the defending state champion and three-time sectional champion.
Secaucus had built a 3-0 lead in the middle of the third after Lauren Guillen started two rallies.
In the first, she doubled to center and scored on Danielle Roesing’s single. In the third, she singled to right and came home on Kendall Caruso’s single. Caruso scored on Ariana Simon’s sacrifice fly.
“This team is extremely resilient,” said Saddle Brook coach Darren White, who led the Falcons to state title games in 2000, 2002 and 2009. “We’ve been down a bunch of times. There’s no panic.”
Saddle Brook responded with a five-run fourth inning as it batted around against Roesing. Garbarino singled in one, Natalie Alvarez’s single to center tied it at 3 and Darian Kraeuter pushed a single to center for a 5-3 lead.
“Usually I end up taking the first pitch, but my parents tell me, ‘Swing the bat, swing the bat, swing the bat,’ ” Kraeuter said. “The game was so big, I had to have confidence in myself.”
The lead was short-lived — two batters, to be exact. Caruso led off the fifth with a single to right and Julia McClure lined a ball down the right-field line that Angela Ferrante dove for, but could not snare. The ball rolled deep into the corner as both runners scored to tie the game at 5.
“We all came in [to the bench] a little upset,” Kraeuter said. “But we knew we couldn’t give up.”
Secaucus advanced runners to second in the seventh and eighth, but Danielle Archibold had four of her nine strikeouts in the last two innings.
Then Russo just kept on running on Garbarino’s bunt in the eighth.
“I was running to second and, looking at third, I saw the base was not covered,” said Russo, who continued home when the ball went out of play. “I can’t even explain the feeling. There are no words.”