Lakeland wins first-ever Passaic County softball title

Natalie Reitema threw a 2-hit shutout for Lakelands, which claimed its first-ever Passaic County softball championship with a 4-0 win over Passaic Valley in the tournament final on Saturday.

RIVERDALE – When Natalie Reitema entered her senior season her goal was to do something no other player ever has in school history, pitch Lakeland to a Passaic County title. With a 5.31 ERA as a part-time starter in her junior season, Reitema not only had to put in a lot of work but establish a bond with catcher Emily Ricci. They knew if the Lancers had any hopes of being a championship team that they had to rely on their teammates, and specifically each other, to battle through the adversity of a long season and a tournament that has been a thorn in the Lancers’ side for decades.

Facing two-time defending champion Passaic Valley, both Reitema and Ricci delivered when their team and the Lakeland softball program needed them most.

Reitema was dealing right from the first pitch and Ricci provided the big blow at the plate with a two-run double in the fifth as third-seeded Lakeland finally broke the long hex by winning the Passaic County Tournament championship with a 4-0 triumph over No. 4 seed Passaic Valley at Independence Field in Riverdale.

“We made history, it’s a great feeling,” said Ricci. “You feel the adrenaline coursing through your veins the entire day and especially during the game. To get it done and to be county champs is something we’ve dreamed of all season.”

The game was scoreless until Lakeland struck in the bottom half of the third inning. It started with a great at-bat from Julia McCormick. After falling behind 0-2, she fouled off three pitches to keep the at-bat alive before working out a walk. Frankie Medici then popped up a bunt that fell in front of the plate with both her and McCormick being safe on the play. After a sacrifice bunt and a walk to load the bases, Reitema helped her own cause by lifting a sac fly down the right-field line with McCormick coming home to score the Lancers’ first run.

Mia Aquino finished with 10 strikeouts for Passaic Valley.

After being stymied the first time through the order, the Hornets showed some signs of life at the plate in the top of the fourth inning on a leadoff double by Sophia Guarente, which was followed by a walk. Then on a bunt up the third-base line, Medici made a great play by fielding the bunt, then wheeling and firing to freshman shortstop Olivia McCormick covering the third-base bag for the force out. Reitema wiggled her way out of the jam to keep Lakeland in front.

With the Hornets gaining confidence, the Lancers needed to pad their lead and did just that in the fifth inning. Julia McCormick started things off again when she was hit by a pitch. Medici walked before Ricci stepped to the plate one out later with a chance to break open the game. The junior drove a ball into the right-centerfield gap, allowing both runners to score and give Lakeland a 3-0 lead.

“I had to focus on finding the ball and taking a good swing,” said Ricci. “You can’t worry about the umpire’s strike zone or what pitch the pitcher was going to throw. I just wanted to hit it hard, put it in play, and hope it finds a gap.”

The Hornets got three good swings off Reitema in the sixth inning but none of them ended up being hits. Paige Togiera made a nice catch, followed by a stab play from first baseman Daniella Salle. Olivia McCormick then made another fine play at short with a strong throw to first. Although the sound off the bats suggested the Hornets had a rally going, the end result was a 1-2-3, six-pitch inning for Reitema. After adding an insurance run in the bottom half of the frame, Reitema closed it out with another perfect inning as the Lancers poured onto the diamond in celebration of a Passaic County Tournament championship that was a very long time in the making.

Emily Ricci drove in two key runs for Lakeland.

“Beating Passaic Valley to win counties is great, it’s everything we could have asked for,” said Reitema. “Today valley my defense really pulled through with a huge game on the line. Passaic Valley hit the ball hard a few times. But we made all the plays and we didn’t want to give up that lead.”

In the biggest game of her career, Reitema was up to the challenge. The senior right-hander twirled a two-hit shutout for Lakeland (14-4-1).

Sophomore Mia Aquino took the loss for Passaic Valley (11-7) but finished with 10 strikeouts.

Lakeland will focus their attention now towards the state tournament. Once again, the Lancers will be the No. 3 seed in North 1, Group 2 and face Newton in a first-round matchup on Monday. Between hugs, pictures, smiling, laughing, and dancing, this team did not want to leave the field. Head coach Laura Junta let them bask in the glory of an accomplishment they would cherish forever.

“This couldn’t have happened to a better group of girls,” said Junta. “They have been playing together since tee ball and they’ve worked so hard towards this goal. We stayed calm under pressure both at the plate and in the field. These girls were willing to do whatever it takes and whatever is best for the team. When you have everyone on the same page then you have a championship-level program. This really is the nicest group of girls and for them to be team to make history for Lakeland, I couldn’t be prouder of them than I am right now.”