Marlboro’s Late Rally Puts an End to Valhalla’s Season

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Valhalla’s Jillian Caldarola pitches
in last Thursday’s regional game vs.

The Valhalla softball team was just four outs away late Thursday afternoon from advancing to the Class B regional finals of the state tournament. Then the clock struck midnight on the Vikings’ Cinderella playoff run.

A two-out double off the bat of Marlboro seventh-grader Kasey Conn that just eluded the glove of right fielder Breanna Ciardullo plated the tying and go-ahead runs in the bottom of the sixth inning and lifted the Section Nine champion Iron Dukes to a 5-4 victory over the Vikings in an opening-round regional game played at Middletown High School.

“Unfortunately, it was just a case of inexperience,” said Valhalla coach John Hayes, moments after his young team had fallen in a contest it led 3-0 halfway through. “In the fourth inning, we made an error. That opened it up a little bit. And then, honestly, just the inexperience kind of, you saw it right there, the pressure kind of setting in. You know, you learn from it. You learn from it.”

For a good portion of the nearly cloudless afternoon, the Vikings’ winning formula through the Section One playoffs was back on display. They jumped ahead early and left it up to sophomore pitcher Jillian Caldarola, who had tossed three consecutive shutouts, to seal the deal. She stranded a pair of Marlboro runners in the first inning, retiring 10 batters in a row before the Iron Dukes finally ended her scoreless streak in the fourth.

“Ah, she was wonderful,” said Hayes about Caldarola. “She got out of some jams. At the end, they started to catch up to her a little bit, how we were working. That last inning, I think the last three batters had singles up the middle, and that cost us. For a rookie season, to take us this far, we’re very excited for the future.”

The present wasn’t bad, either, for the Vikings, especially when sophomore first baseman Giana Bencivengo stepped to the plate with two outs in the top of the first and nearly sent a Melonie Papuli pitch rocketing over the distant fence in deep left-center field. The ball landed up against the fence for a booming double, then Bencivengo took third on a wild pitch. But Deanna Yurus grounded to short to end the inning.

“Giana hit it to the deepest part of the park, 242, and it hit off the fence,” said Hayes. “You couldn’t have hit it any better. Haven’t seen a shot that far and then, unfortunately, it hit that fence.”

Kaitlyn Doherty led off the second inning by blasting another double to left. Two outs later, she stole third base, then scored the game’s first run when Emily Strupinsky barely beat the throw to first after her grounder to third base was bobbled. Ciardullo reached on a bunt single before the inning ended on Bella Riguzzi’s liner to third.

Caldarola began the top of the third with a single to center field. Bencivengo followed with a single down the right-field line and Caldarola scored on an errant throw back to the infield. A single to center by Yurus brought home Bencivengo and stretched the Valhalla lead to 3-0.

Caldarola was cruising along on the mound until she walked Shannon Camuso with two outs in the fourth. Kaitlyn Tudico lofted a fly to left that fell out of the glove of Strupinsky, putting runners on the corners. Alysia Kelley soon dumped a single into right, scoring Camuso and ending Caldarola’s bid for a fourth successive shutout.

In the fifth inning, Marlboro tied the game with a pair of unearned runs. Conn reached on a throwing error and Victoria Sorace beat the throw to first by Caldarola on a bunt in front of the plate. A wild pitch brought in Conn and Sorace eventually scored on a sacrifice fly by Taylor Felicello.

But in the sixth, the Vikings jumped ahead again as leadoff hitter Juliana Abbondola reached on an error, moved to second on Christina Ferrara’s sacrifice bunt, to third on a wild pitch and scored on Strupinksy’s grounder to second base.

Caldarola retired the first two Iron Dukes in the bottom of the inning before Kelley dropped a single into center field. Ashely Vacca followed with another hit to center and both runners moved up an extra base on an overthrow back to the infield. That set the stage for the game’s youngest player, Conn, who came through with her decisive two-run double to right-center just out of reach of a sliding Ciardullo.

In the Vikings’ final turn at the plate, Riguzzi swung at the first pitch and grounded out to short. Caldarola then bounced out to second. Bencivengo, perhaps wisely, was walked on four pitches, before Valhalla’s stellar 18-5 season came to an end with a check-swing pop-up to second by Yurus.

“Yeah, we keep getting up to here and Section 9 always seems to have our number,” said Hayes. “You could see, a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger. But we were right there. I actually thought we were gonna get over the hump today and then onto round two.”

Despite the loss, the Vikings provided Hayes with another championship year to remember, one he perhaps didn’t see coming.

“We really had one kid coming back, in center field, a senior,” he said. “And you had a rookie in left, a rookie in right, two freshmen up the middle, rookie third, rookie first, rookie on the hill and rookie behind the plate. We have progressed incredibly. I’m proud of ‘em. They took me beyond where we ever thought we could go.”

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