Merrick Gourhan about to make contact with the fourth-inning home run that gave Indian Hills the lead for good in a 2-0 win over Middletown North in the Group 3 state semifinals at Caldwell University.
CALDWELL – The anxiousness that Indian Hills pitcher Angela Saric was feeling in the bottom of the seventh inning and nothing to do with trying to keep her no-hitter intact. In fact, she did not even know that she was throwing one. What was occupying her thoughts were the three runners on base and the hitter at the plate with two outs as the Braves were nursing a two-run lead in the Group 3 state semifinals played on the campus of Caldwell University.
“I think that was the most stressful seventh inning I have ever played in my life,” said Saric. “I had no idea [about the no-hitter]. Once I got out there I was like ‘Oh, my God. We are three outs away from making it to the state championship. The nerves kind of got to me, so that is why I was throwing a little odd, but it worked out in the end.”
The end was a swinging strike three that stranded three of the four base runners that Middletown Town North was able to muster in the game. In one fell swoop, Saric finished off her no-no and the 2-0 win that sends the Braves into the Group 3 state final where they will play Steinert, the Central Jersey champ that knocked off Hammonton in Thursday’s the other semifinal.
Saric, a 1,000-point scorer in her three years as a varsity starter in basketball and a three-year starter in the circle who will continue her softball career at St. John’s University, and the rest of the Indian Hills senior class is heading to the state final for the first time.
Senior Angela Saric threw a no-hitter for Indian Hills, which improved to 29-3.
“We are in our last few weeks of high school and we are getting to do something that most people don’t get to experience in life,” said Saric. “It feels so good just to be going there and having the opportunity to win a state championship.”
The problem for Middletown North (25-6) for much of the game was simply getting runners on base. For Indian Hills, the struggle was finding a way to get its base runners to touch home plate. The Braves went down in order just one in the game but left four on base through the first three innings including three that reached second base with less than two outs.
The first inning in which it did not look like Indian Hills had anything going on was the fourth when the bases were empty with two outs. Then junior Merrick Gourhan put together her second lengthy plate appearance of the game. She saw 10 pitches in her first at bat in the second inning and then seven more in her second turn, which ended with a home run that cut through the fog and landed on the other side of the left centerfield fence to give the Braves the lead for good.
“I had the at bat before when I had a lot of foul balls and I knew that if I just waited on it a little longer I would be able to drive it up the middle,” said Ghouran. “I already choked up on the bat, I had control of it and barreled it up. I wasn’t trying to hit it out, I just tried to make contact.”
Meg Halloran had three hits and scored a run for Indian Hills, which will play Steinert for the outright Group 3 state title.
Indian Hills (29-3) struck again almost as quickly in the top of the fifth. This time it took two batters, however, as Meg Halloran, who was 3-for-4 in the game and reached base in all four of her plate appearances, smacked a leadoff double and scored when the next hitter, Kelsey McLennan, singled back through the box.
Indian Hills stranded two runners in that fifth inning, two more in the top of the seventh and eight in total in the game, but Saric had stymied the Lions and had only three more outs to get with a two-run cushion. Middletown North’s only baserunner through the first six innings was Alyssa Vetrano, who was hit by a pitch with one out in the first.
Saric retired the next 17 hitters in a row and just about every defender had a hand in keeping the Lions off the basepaths. Indian Hills played error free behind Saric (7 IP, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 H, 3 K, 2 BB, 2 HBP, W), who struck out just three and dared Middletown South to put the ball in play by working ahead in the count and attacking the strike zone. Every one of Indian Hills’ seven field players had at least one assist or putout and Maria DeOliveira was solid behind the plate.
There was no trouble on the horizon until Saric hit Vertano with a pitch for the second time in the game leading off the bottom of the seventh. Saric grabbed a comebacker for the first out before issuing her first walk of the game to Cara McNulty.
The next hitter, Adriana Cerbo, then hit the best shot of the game for Middletown South, a screaming liner that landed in the glove of leftfielder Deirdre Campbell. The relief was short-lived as Malori Bell worked a full count and then took ball four to load the bases to put the Lions to within one hit of potentially tying the game. But that hit never came, not in the next at bat and not in all as Saric finished off her no-hitter with a strikeout.
Indian Hills has been through the wringer this year. There have been disappointing losses like the one on Monday to Ramsey in the Bergen County Tournament and resilient wins, like Tuesday’s gritty comeback performance against Sparta in the North 1, Group 3 state sectional final that earned the Braves a trophy. All of it has come with the sadness of losing longtime assistant coach Bob Alexander last month.
“We lost our assistant coach Bob Alexander and we were together for over 20 years. He died in the beginning of May and he never made it back for this season. It’s heartbreaking because he was the gentle giant, the good cop. No matter what happened he was always like, ‘It’s okay girls, just have fun,” said Indian Hills head coach Joe Leicht, choking up at the memory. “We lost him and these girls, with the joyous season that we are having, that happened at the same time. If that doesn’t show resiliency…they went to the wake, they went to the funeral and here they are at 29-3 and playing for a state title. That says so much about this group.”