Steinert’s Dara Kelly makes a sliding catch in the CJ III Softball Tournament game against Brick Township. Photo by Amanda Ruch Photography.
By Rich Fisher
May 23: The date was May 3 and Steinert had just dropped a 1-0 home decision to West Windsor-Plainsboro South. Following the game, coach Jean Ruppert was as visibly upset as she had been after a game in, well, in a long, long time.
Since that day, the Spartans have responded with an eight-game winning streak, including five in state or county tournament play.
The latest came today, when top-seeded Steinert took a 5-1 win over 12th-seeded Brick Township in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III quarterfinals.
After going for a Mercer County Tournament title Thursday against Robbinsville, the Spartans (19-4) travel to top-seeded Burlington Township Friday for a CJ III semifinal. The Falcons defeated Nottingham, 5-1, in their quarterfinal.
There’s no time to come up for air this week, which is something Ruppert came to understand after that West Windsor loss. Steinert was in the midst of playing five straight days during that little stumble.
“When you’re playing that many days in a row and that many games that mean something, it’s going to be hard to be focused and on top of your game every single day,” Ruppert said. “Sometimes its OK not to be perfect for that one game, and I realized that after. The competitor in me wants to win every single game we go out on the field. But it’s hard for them to be that focused for that long a period of time.
“After that game, we worked on our hitting a little, we worked on some defensive things, and we’ve been playing well.”
The WWPS loss was Steinert’s only defeat in its last 13 games.
“Yeah, we were a little slow with our bats that day,” said Kaylee Whittaker, today’s winning pitcher. “We just had to put that game behind us, forget about it and move on.”
They have done a good job of that, and have reached the sectional semifinals for the sixth straight year. A win on Friday would put Steinert in the finals for the fourth straight year, and five of the last six.
It’s no wonder Whittaker is calm in these games. She has pitched in a lot of them.
“I kind of just take them as any normal game,” the junior right-hander said. “I try not to think of it as a state game or that it’s that big, I just try to go in and do the job.”
She did that today, throwing a five-hitter with three walks and seven strikeouts. Brick’s lone run was unearned.
Steinert (19-4) gave its pitcher all she needed in the first with four two-out runs. In fact, Whittaker drove in the first when she doubled home Carli Backlund, who also doubled. Nicole Cerasi followed with a weird-looking double that put runners on second and third. Cora Bridgers walked and Grace Gaskill delivered a big, two-run single.
“I knew I had to come up and do something for my team,” Gaskill said. “I knew I had to get those runs in.”
Bridgers capped the flurry by scoring on a wild pitch.
“It calms my shoulders a little bit,” Whittaker said of the lead. “It gives me a little cushion to work with but I still kind of go out with the same intensity.”
In the following inning, Bridgers put on a foul-ball clinic in wasting a slew of two-strike pitches before drawing a bases-loaded walk.
That would be it for the Spartans, however, as they left five on base over the next four innings.
“That’s what you want to do,” Ruppert said. “You want to come out and score right away and take that lead. But then you want to keep building on it. I would have liked to have seen us do that, but Kaylee pitched a good game, and I was happy with how we played defense today.”