Late offense sparks Lady Panther playoff win

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Pitcher Tori Sittineri had the game-winning RBI in Middle's playoff win over Sterling CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – It was a critical moment of the game in the top of the sixth inning, and Middle Township High School softball coach Lauren Ruef had a decision to make.

Concede the tying run on an infield ground ball, or bring all the infielders forward to try to take it away on a ground ball, thus opening up more holes for a batted ball to find.

“How we play this year is that I trust our offense, that we can score runs,” Ruef said.

With Sterling runners at second and third with one out, Ruef decided to play her team’s infield back and gave up the tying run on a groundout. The next batter popped out to end the inning. The Lady Panthers then rewarded their coach’s instincts by scoring four runs in the bottom of the sixth, leading to an 8-4 victory in a second-round South Jersey Group II playoff game.

“I know it’s not real conventional,” Ruef explained further of her decision. “But I had faith in our offense because we were hitting the ball and getting our bunts down most of the game. I feel like we can give up a run or two (in exchange) for outs if we have to because I’m feeling it from our offense.””

After Pagie Cantz (walk) and Alyssa Discepola (single) each reached to start the frame, Tori Sittineri’s line single to center field gave Middle the lead for good, as two runs scored on the play after Sterling (13-9) made two late throws in a failed attempt to throw out Middle runners on the bases.

Sittineri lined the first pitch she saw into the outfield for her game-winning hit.

“I didn’t want to wait on any pitches,” Sittineri said. “I was going up there to swing at the first good pitch I got. I was ready to win.”

Additional hits by Victoria Raffaele, Taylor Franchville and Haley Smith led to two more runs in the inning.

Sittineri was the winning pitcher. Never overpowering, the senior relies on throwing strikes and staying away from the middle of the plate. She won a key matchup by striking out Sterling cleanup hitter Ashley Croge three times and forced her into an 0 for 4 day.

“The best part about her is, even if the other team’s crushing the ball or we’re not making the plays in the field, she always keeps her composure,” Ruef said. “That tends to help the defense settle down. And ever since she’s been a freshman, she’s never walked a lot of people. She’s walked a little more this year because she’s learned that throwing balls once in a while isn’t always a bad thing. She’s really been doing it for us on the mound and offensively this year.”

Fourth-seeded Middle (15-7), which also beat No. 13 Haddonfield, 8-4, in its tournament opener on Saturday, will face either No. 1 Buena or No. 9 Deptford in the sectional semifinal round early next week. Buena and Deptford are scheduled to play one another on Wednesday.

Tuesday’s victory gave Middle two state playoff victories for the second time in as many seasons.

“Every year I’ve been here, I see the leadership from the seniors getting stronger and stronger, because they’re picking up from the example left by the previous year’s seniors,” Ruef said. “This team really sticks together. They do a lot of things together off the field and they work very, very hard in practice. Some of them even ask to stay after practice to work on things. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Discepola went 4 for 4 with two runs scored and an RBI and Franchville was 3 for 3 with an RBI and a run scored. Maddie Ellis also belted an RBI double in the fifth inning.

Middle is looking forward to the challenge of attempting to reach the South Jersey title game for the first time in nearly 20 years.

“I think our team’s really coming together and going somewhere,” Sittineri said. “Hopefully we can keep it going.”

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