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With 24 wins and a second consecutive South Jersey championship, the St. Joseph High School softball team achieved goals that many previous squads in the program’s history can’t boast.

Unfortunately for this group of hungry and talented Wildcats, the team couldn’t grab hold of the one title that still eludes them.

Five outs away from capturing the school’s first state title in any girls’ sport, St. Joseph surrendered the tying run in the sixth and the decisive run in the bottom of the seventh on Friday, June 5, as Immaculate Conception Academy of Lodi walked off with a 2-1 win in the Non-Public B final at Kean University.

“It’s heartbreaking,” St. Joseph coach Candi Dean said. “I am proud of them. It’s hard to think about this right now, but I told them to keep in mind the fabulous season they had. We won back-to-back South Jersey titles for the first time, had the second most wins in school history. It won’t feel like that (Friday), maybe not (Saturday) but hopefully (eventually).”

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” senior catcher Carly Testa said about playing in her final scholastic game. “I feel like we’re going to get up and play (Saturday). It makes it that much harder that it’s my last game and we were so close. We just really wanted this one bad.”

The Wildcats (24-5) appeared to be in position to make it a historic season.

Against two-time defending state champion ICA (22-5), a team that knocked off St. Joseph in last year’s final 5-0, the Wildcats scored in their first at-bat when senior Mikaela Power was hit by a pitch and later scored on a passed ball.

One run looked like it might hold up as St. Joseph’s defense came up with several highlight-reel plays behind starter Taylor Sirolli to keep ICA in check.

Right fielder Jess Poston snared a tough liner in the fourth inning, center fielder Gianna Morganti made a snowcone grab to end the fourth with the bases loaded and third baseman Power turned a nifty 5-3 double play to end a threat in the fifth.

The excitement began to build.

“You can taste it almost as the innings go by,” Dean said. “We thought we had it for a while, but it’s tough to win a game when you only score one run. It’s tough to hold on to one run and as the game went on they started getting more hits. It’s a hard game to win, 1-0.”

An insurance run never materialized.

ICA starter Sarah Piening, a junior right-hander who tossed a shutout in last year’s final, held the Wildcats to four hits — only two coming in the same frame. Piening struck out nine, giving her 288 in 178 innings this year, including a pair to end the sixth with a runner on third base.

The momentum appeared to sway in ICA’s favor in the later innings. The Blue Wolves began to make stronger contact and finally broke through in the sixth.

With runners on second and third, Ashley Catone lifted a fly ball to shallow center field. Morganti made the catch and a strong throw but couldn’t cut down the tying run.

In the seventh, a St. Joseph error led to a leadoff runner. One out later and a wild pitch that moved the runner to second, Andee Lupica lined a 3-1 pitch up the middle and scored the decisive run.

There were plenty of tears and hugs as the team huddled together after the game. It was a disappointing end to a season that produced so many fond memories.

“I wouldn’t trade this for anything,” said Testa, who finished her senior season with 66 hits and over 200 for her career. “I had such an amazing time with this team. I’m so grateful for everything.”

The Wildcats reached the state final with a 16-4 triumph over Mater Dei in the Non-Public B South final on June 3.

St. Joseph fell behind 2-0 in the top of the first inning, but scored nine in the bottom of the frame to take control.

Nicole Fox and Cara Owsley finished with three hits and a pair of RBIs and runs scored each, Testa scored three times, Power was 2-for-3 with with three RBIs and two runs scored and Kyra Berrios and Sara Raubertas both scored twice.

Sirolli picked up the victory, striking out eight in the win.

Tom McGurk; (856) 563-5260; tmcgurk@gannettnj.com

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