By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
HAMMONTON — Last season, the Hammonton softball team won its first 16 games en route to capturing the South Jersey Group 3 championship and finishing with a 20-2 record. Things haven’t gone quite so smoothly in 2022 for the Blue Devils, but they find themselves one win away from playing for a championship again after surviving a scare from Mainland Regional on Friday in the sectional quarterfinals.
Hammonton, the tournament’s top seed, scored a run in the bottom of the first inning and added two more in the fourth, then held on for a 3-1 win over the No. 9 Mustangs. The win puts Hammonton into the sectional semifinals against No. 4 Delsea Regional — an 8-2 winner over No. 12 Seneca — on Tuesday. The other half of the bracket features No. 3 Toms River South awaiting the winner of No. 2 Burlington Township and No. 7 Timber Creek, who play on Saturday after getting postponed today.
Senior pitcher April Lewandowski came up big for Hammonton as she struck out nine, allowed just four hits, walked two and limited Mainland’s offense to just one run, which came in the top of the sixth. She shut the door in the seventh with a pair of strikeouts and a flyout — not allowing the big bats of Mainland seniors Ava Kinkler and Bella Canesi a chance to tie it.
“I knew I really had to focus today because last time we played Mainland I was kind of all over the place as far as pitches go. I knew I really had to focus and place the ball. I was focusing on location, location and who I was facing at the plate. My drop curve was really working, so I tried to pitch that as much as I could,” Lewandowski said. “I tried to stay outside to the top of their lineup because I know last time we played them the top of their lineup was pretty good.”
Lewandowski started the game by striking out the side in the top of the first, then Hammonton’s offense got to work in the bottom half of the inning. A walk to Alexa Panagopoylos and a misplayed infield pop-up put two runners on, and Ava Divello followed with an RBI single to left to put Hammonton up 1-0.
The Blue Devils (17-7) tacked on two more in the bottom of the fourth thanks to a controversial interference call between second and third. Divello doubled to start the inning and ended up at third due to an infield interference call one batter later, and she scored ahead of Gracie Ravenkamp’s RBI single to left, pushing Hammonton’s lead to 2-0. Facing a second-and-third, no-out situation, Mainland pitcher Bella D’Agostino recorded two quick outs, but after a walk an infield error allowed a third run to cross for the Blue Devils.
Mainland (13-8) threatened in the fifth, putting runners at first and second with one out, but Lewandowski was able to work out of the jam. In the sixth, Kinkler doubled to right-center, went to third on a passed ball and scored on an RBI groundout by Camryn Juckett to cut the deficit to 3-1. But Lewandowski set down the final four batters in a row to seal the victory.
Hammonton lost 6-3 to Mainland on April 22, but since then the Blue Devils have been on a roll. They’ve won three straight and 11 of their last 13, with the only losses coming against Bordentown and Egg Harbor Township.
“It feels really good. It feels like we’re back to our old selves, like last year. We have a good groove going now, so I think the next game we’re going to do pretty good. I feel like we were more amped up and ready to play. We wanted this win so badly, and we got it,” Divello said. “I just feel like we’ve been working harder, and that’s what we needed, to be ourselves again. We had such a high standard from last year and we were trying to play to that standard, but we just needed to be ourselves. In a way (we were putting too much pressure on ourselves) trying to be that high standard that we were last year.”
“I don’t know if it was coming off the success from last year — we kind of snuck up on a lot of people (in 2021) — and at the beginning of the year the kids just thought it was going to be like last year. Nobody expected much out of us with so many young kids and we get on a roll early. We were still working hard, but I don’t think they understood — as most high school kids don’t — that we had a massive target on our back,” said Hammonton coach Eric Shulman. “When we played Mainland the first time, they definitely outplayed us, there’s no doubt about that, but we also shot ourselves in the foot. We made a bunch of errors, had bad at-bats. On the bus ride home we talked about making sure we’re focused, we’re going to get everybody’s best shot. If a team wants to beat us, they’re going to have to beat us; no more errors, swinging at bad pitches. And I think with our kids it finally started to click for them.”
The Blue Devils also were inspired by assistant coach Frank LaSasso, who’s grandson, Frankie, has been fighting cancer for more than a year now. Typically, Hammonton plays Ocean City — where Frankie’s dad, also named Frank, is an assistant baseball coach — in a softball/baseball doubleheader to raise money for cancer research. But this year, the second for the “Fight Like Frankie” event, the softball team’s state playoff game took precedence.
Hammonton still wore their alternate orange “Fight Like Frankie” jerseys to support its assistant coach.
“It means so much because we love Coach Frank and we support him all the time, just like he does for us,” Lewandowski said. “He actually didn’t know we were supposed to wear these, so we kind of surprised him. It’s a shame we didn’t get to play in the ‘Fight Like Frankie’ game because it’s such an important thing to us, but I’m glad we could come out of here with a win. Yesterday after practice we all agreed that we would wear the jerseys for him.”
What’s next: Hammonton hosts Delsea on Tuesday in the South Jersey Group 3 semifinals, time TBD. Mainland’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays