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***Millburn rode its pitching ace Steven Echavarria plus more than enough runs in roaring by North Hunterdon to capture N2G3 state sectional title before home crowd!

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Columbia players, assistant coaches and athletic director Rich Porfido (right) surround head coach Cliff Smith, who holds NJSIAA trophy as the Cougars have defeated Livingston, 7-5, in 8 innings, to capture the North 1, Group 4 state sectional crown on Saturday afternon before a large crowd at The Oval in Livingston. Columbia advances to take on North 2 champion Hillsborough in Tuesday's state semis. (SC Photo)

Columbia Regains Lead With Its Small Ball
To Edge Livingston For N1G4 Championship

By Steve Tober

LIVINGSTON- Columbia had been in a similar position in two previous games against Livingston this season, both regular season losses for the Cougars after they were either tied or leading the Lancers.

In Saturday’s North 1, Group 4 state sectional final there may have been some thoughts of ‘déjà vu once again’ after Columbia saw a 5-0 lead evaporate in the bottom of the seventh inning as Livingston tied the contest, 5-5, highlighted by star sophomore Allie Nankivell’s grand slam home run.

But, perhaps the third time is indeed the charm, at least when it comes to a Cougars team that has come a long way this season with its predominantly young lineup as the fourth-seeded visitors from Maplewood-South Orange withstood the temporary setback of relinquishing a fairly sizeable, late lead by coming through with two runs in the top of the eighth inning thanks in large measure to highly-effective bunting, and then recorded the final three outs to nail down a dramatic 7-5 victory over the second-seeded Lancers before a large crowd at The Oval.    

And, while there was discussion after the game that based on a banner in the Columbia gymnasium which reads that the Cougars softball team won a state sectional title in 1979, further research reveals that is actually not the case and Saturday’s N1G4 title could actually be the program’s first-ever state sectional crown.

The Cougars now move on to face North 2 champion Hillsborough in the Group 4 state semifinals, 4 p.m. Tuesday (June 6), at the Somerset County school.

The Group 4 final is slated for 10:30 a.m., Saturday (June 10) at Kean University, against the Marlboro-Kingsway Central-South Jersey survivor.  

Regardless of if or when Columbia has ever won another softball state title, the one we definitely know about that was achieved against Livingston was achieved after one ultra-exciting game on a cloudy and cool early June afternoon.   

There were certainly both highs and lows for Columbia (21-9) in the course of Saturday’s N1G4 final against a Livingston (18-8) team that is always one of the top Group 4 programs to keep an eye on come state tourney time, but the highest point was  in the top of the eighth inning when following an out to start the frame, freshman Lexi Kaplan bunted for a hit and went to second on an infield throwing error to start a Columbia rally.

That brought up leadoff batter Tess Schram, one of only three seniors in Saturday’s Cougars starting lineup. She proceeded to direct a slap bunt in the best possible place in the field, just to the left side of the pitching circle as no one was in the immediate area and the ball wound up near second base with Kaplan racing home with the go-ahead run and a 6-5 Columbia lead.

“I wanted to bunt for a hit in that spot and anywhere except right at the pitcher,” said Schram. “(Sophia) Mount throws hard, but I think I hit a curve and luckily I got it down, the ball went through and we were able to get that go-ahead run in.”

No. 2 hitter Juliette Licata, another of the seniors in the lineup, also bunted effectively, and another Livingston throwing error on the play allowed Schram to score an insurance run.

“Small ball comes into play a lot there and small ball wins games,” said Columbia freshman catcher and No. 5 hitter Eva Clevenger who had a second inning double when the Cougars scored twice to take 2-0 lead, and added a big 2-run single to highlight a 3-run seventh inning when the visitors extended their lead to 5-0.


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