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MEDFORD — Although it didn’t play out quite as expected, in the end it was a very familiar success story for the Steinert High School softball team when it comes to NJSIAA state tournament semifinal games.
A 13-4 winner over Shawnee on Tuesday, Steinert defeated a South Jersey champion for the fifth time in a row and in the process advanced to the Group III state final for the fifth time in the last seven years the tournament has been held.
Steinert (20-5) will now attempt to win its third state title in those seven years on Saturday night at Kean University. Its opponent will be Morris Knolls, which beat Cranford in a wild 12-11 slugfest.
The Central Jersey champion had defeated the South Jersey winner the last nine years in a row in Group III and although Shawnee (16-10) put up a stubborn fight, it simply could not match Steinert’s offensive fireworks in what proved to be sort of an odd game.
Odd in that were some huge momentum shifts as Steinert bolted out to a quick 4-0 lead in the third inning, only to see Shawnee come back to tie it in the fourth and knock senior Isabella Bonacci out of the circle in the process.
Bonacci was replaced in the fourth inning by Katie Simonka, who did a fine job in relief and pitched through the sixth. During that span the game was halted for over half an hour because of lightning with the score deadlocked at 4-all.
Shawnee seemed to be on a roll prior to the game being stopped, but it was a much different story once it resumed. As in four Spartan runs in the sixth and five more in the seventh to win going away.
“I do think the break might have helped us a bit,” said Steinert coach Jenn Melker. “We talked to the girls and it allowed us to refocus. We kept it relaxed. We told the girls to play hard, play smart and have some fun.”
Did they ever as Steinert lit up Alexandre Pley in the sixth on a lead-off single by Mia Pope, two walks, a two-run single by Bonacci and a run scoring single by Simonka. This was just a prelude to the seventh when Steinert added the five runs and six hits to its total of 16 for the game.
The seventh began with a bunt single by Makenna Span and the third hit of the game by Pope. Bianca Walsh, who had been quiet up to that points, then blasted a three-run opposite field home run to left.
From there, Ceara O’Neal and Bonacci singled, Addison Hassan (three RBIs) smacked an RBI double and Simonka lofted a sac fly to drive in the 13th run.
Bonacci was huge all game with a 4-for-4 that included two doubles and a bullet home run over the center field fence in the third inning. She finished with four RBIs in all. In addition to Pope’s three hits, Steinert got two apiece by O’Neal, Simonka and Paige Schultz.
“I’d been slumping, but I had a great approach at the plate today,” said Bonacci, who later returned to the circle and mowed down Shawnee on three straight outs in the seventh.
And what about her pitching struggles in the middle of the game?
“It’s been a long season and I wasn’t hitting my spots,” replied Bonacci. “But Katie did a great job of picking me. We also talked (when the game got stopped) and came out ready as a team to attack.”
Shawnee got big games from some of its players as well. Particularly at the bottom of the order where No. 8 batter Madison White collected three hits and No. 9 batter Ava Cardwell had two. Renegade lead-off batter Madison Knopka also had two hits and Eden Ehle smacked a two-run double.
Hurting the Renegades were two base-running mistakes in which it ran itself into double plays in the first and sixth innings.
“Katie did her job,” said Melker of the relief work turned in by Simonka. “Shawnee has a really good team, but what we needed to do was stop playing Shawnee softball and start playing Steinert softball.”
To its vast credit, what Steinert softball is all about is playing in state championship games.
Steinert (20-5) 202 004 5 – 13 16 0
Shawnee (16-10) 003 100 0 – 4 9 0
WP-Bonacci. LP-Pley. 2B-Bonacci 2, Pope (St), Hassan (St), Ehle (Sh), White (Sh). HR-Bonacci, Walsh (S).
Group II: Haddon Heights 3, Delsea 0
Group I: Clayton 10, New Egypt 1
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