Emerson, punching above its weight, wins county tournament opener

Senior Natalie Graham had 8 strikeouts, including the 300th of her career, for Emerson, which topped Pascack Valley, 11-0, in the opening round of the Bergen County Tournament on Friday.

EMERSON – One of the smallest high schools in terms of enrollment, Emerson always seems to punch above its weight in softball. A strong recreation program has fed the high school with enough talented players to make the Cavos a perennial contender for league and state sectional titles. This year, however, Emerson is more than just a feel-good, small school story. It might just be a contender in the Bergen County Softball Tournament.

Seeded fifth, the highest for a Group 1 school since Midland Park was the No. 5 seed in 2013, Emerson opened this year’s tournament with an 11-0 victory over Pascack Valley in a game that took just five innings and 52 minutes to complete.

“We have a dedicated group that puts a lot of time into the rec program,” said Emerson head coach Nancy Graf. “Anytime you see a public school that is consistently good, you know it has a good rec department and we have definitely benefitted from it.”

That rec program has produced players like Natalie Graham, who is having herself quite a week, which included the 100th hit of her career on Tuesday. She reached another milestone against Pascack Valley by picking up her 300th career strikeout.

Graham (5 IP, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 H, 8 K, 1 BB, W), a senior right-hander, struck out almost half of 17 hitters she faced on Friday and went 2-for-3 at the plate with an RBI and two runs scored.

Kiara Selby had one of the two hits for Pascack Valley.

“It was important to come out and play our game and not take [Pascack Valley] lightly. They are a strong team with a strong pitcher and good lineup,” said Graham, who will play at East Stroudsburg University, the world class beacon of higher learning in the Poconos, next season. “We knew we had to swing the bats, make the runs stick every inning and keep it clean on defense.”

Graham struck out the first two batters she faced, worked a 1-2-3 top of the first inning and the offense gave her a lead to work with shortly thereafter. Senior Kelty Manning drew a leadoff walk and, after a fielder’s choice and walk loaded the bases, Eleeza Kapadia came through with a two-out single to the opposite field that put Emerson up for good, 2-0.

Sophia Centeno had the big blow in the bottom of the second inning with a bases-clearing, three-run double to make it 5-0.

“We had total respect for [Pascack Valley] coming and the plan was to hit the ball hard on the ground, hit line drives and keep the ball out of the air. Their centerfielder [Kiara Selby] is a nice player and we wanted to keep the ball away from her,” said Graf. “We executed. The kids that we have in the big spots are a little bit more experienced and county games are tough. That experience is important.”

Selby hit a hard line drive off an infielder’s glove to become PV’s first baserunner leading off the top of the second inning, but was erased trying to go first-to-third on Ashley Diaz’s sacrifice bunt. Maya Newell had a clean two-out single in the third and Alexis Ban drew a one-out walk in the fourth, but that was the extent of the damage that the Panthers could do against Graham and the Cavos pushed it their lead into double digits in the bottom of the fourth.

Eleeza Kapadia put Emerson in front for good with a two-run single in the bottom of the first inning.

Manning (2-for-2, 2 R, 2 BB) got it started with a leadoff single, the first of her two hits in the inning as Emerson sent 12 hitters to the plate in the frame, and Graham gave away an out with a sacrifice bunt. The next six hitters all reached safely and the six runs scored made it 11-0.

Every spot in the Emerson order had at least one hit with Manning, Graham and Kapadia (2-for-3, 2 RBI, SB) all with multiple knocks. Sarah Mohrzechi (1-for-4, 2 R), Centeno (1-for-3, 3 RBI, 2 R), Sophie Nisonoff (1-for-1, RBI, R, 2 BB), Jillian Kleinman (1-for-3, RBI, R), Alyssa Gabriele (1-for-3, R, RBI) and Gabby Micucci (1-for-3) all chipped in offensively for the Cavos, who improved to 12-2 on the season and will host No. 12 River Dell in the Round of 16 next weekend in a rematch of a regular season game won by Emerson, 2-1.

“We are excited and for me, in my last season here, I just want to do whatever it takes to make a far run in the county and state tournament,” said Graham. “A lot of people sleep on small schools, they might see us as a tiny school with limitations, but we have a lot of confidence in each other and we want to keep it going and see how far we can take this.”