By Rich Fisher | Correspondent
In hurling the St. John Vianney softball team to its ninth consecutive Monmouth County Tournament title, sophomore pitcher Julia Parker symbolized the team around her.
“She stays focused,” coach Kim Lombardi said. “That’s the team I have this year with her and the defense – they stay focused.”
That concentration led to a 5-2 win over Middletown North in the Monmouth County Tournament Red Division championship game May 12 at Count Basie Field, Red Bank.
Photo Gallery: SJV vs. Middletown North
Despite allowing her only two runs of the MCT, Parker was outstanding in throwing a three-hitter with one hit batsmen, no walks and six strikeouts.
“Julia is a phenomenal pitcher,” junior catcher Ally Jones said. “I also catch her during travel ball, and her control has gotten tremendously better. She’s the kind of pitcher, you don’t know where she’s going to throw it, and that’s what’s scary for a batter.”
What made Parker most impressive was the mental toughness on display against an incredibly stubborn Lions team.
On numerous occasions, North batters fouled off four to six pitches on full counts, and Parker never got flustered. Rather than groove one or throw ball four, she got outs every time. After allowing a leadoff single in the second, she retired 16 straight before Malori Bell’s homer in the seventh.
“I was just really trusting my pitches,” said Parker, who was the winner in relief against North in last year’s final.
That, along with the focus that Lombardi discussed, came into play.
“Her mental state is incredible,” Jones said. “She’s calm, she’s cool and she’s relaxed. She really focused on that going from freshman year to sophomore year. We’re like ‘Listen, you’ve got all the tools, you just need the mental part.’”
She seems to have that part down. Last year against the Lions, Parker entered in the eighth inning and escaped a two-on, one-out jam before the Lancers won it in the ninth.
This year finished what she started.
“I knew I had a strong defense behind me, I just needed to hit my spots,” said Parker, who joined Katie Beriont and Ashley Ventura as SJV pitchers to win consecutive MCT finals. “I had that rise and did well with that inside curve. Everything was working.”
In four tournament wins, Parker allowed eight hits and one earned run with 35 strikeouts in 23 innings.
“She went to work today, had command of her pitches. That’s very hard to beat,” Lombardi said.
So are the Lancers, who improved to 20-0 with the win.
Parker was staked to a two-run lead in the first when Monmouth-bound Lindsey Baron saw about 10 pitches before hitting a leadoff double off the top of the wall. Hayley Ahr followed with another great at-bat and walked before Parker helped her cause with an RBI single. Alexis “Lou” Agrapides delivered a sacrifice fly to make it 2-0.
“That was awesome,” Parker said. “I love getting runs in the first. I knew we’d kill the ball after that.”
They didn’t quite kill it, but got all they needed in the fourth. After North scored an unearned run in in the bottom of the first, the next two frames were uneventful.
Agrapides led off the fourth with a bunt single and, after a Jess Campana sacrifice, Jones drove an 0-1 pitch over the leftfield wall for a two-run homer.
“She got me the first at-bat (with a strikeout),” Jones said. “She’s a great pitcher. I knew kind of what she was going with, the sequence, and when she threw a pitch that I was looking for, I just zoned in on it. I think it was a rise ball and I tried to hit it as hard as I could.”
SJV padded its lead when Gillian Zack singled and eventually scored on Ahr’s single. It was a unique inning, as the Lancers never had an official at-bat. Both their outs came on sacrifice bunts, and the inning ended with a runner getting thrown out at home.
Parker took it from there as yet another group of seniors will graduate going 4-0 in county finals. That is especially important to Baron, whose sister Kate won four straight from 2011-14. She had to get her fourth just to stay even.
“Yeah there’s definitely pressure coming in,” Lindsey Baron said. “You win it all the past years, so the senior year you have to seal the deal. That’s what we did, and we went out on a high note.”
“This means the world,” Jones said. “We work so hard. We’re practicing in the morning, practicing after school, hours and hours. We’re really blessed to get out here and perform.”
They will continue to perform with the Shore Conference and South Jersey Non-Public A tournaments upcoming. St. John Vianney is the defending SCT champ but has hit some snags in states the past few years.
“We’ve got way more to go,” Parker said. “We need to get that state title this year.”
“There’s a few teams we’re definitely focused on, but mostly we’re focused on ourselves,” Jones said. “Being able to play to the best of our abilities, I think that’s what’s really gonna be important. We just want to finish strong this year.”
Lombardi feels the challenge is maintaining focus and intensity going from one tournament to another.
“I think sometimes the Shore Conference and states, playing back to back, it’s hard to win either; you almost have to pick your tournament,” the coach said. “It’s not that you are down – sometimes you are focused on both. At the end of the day you have to just focus on that game you’re playing, and that’s what we’re gonna try to do.”