Riverhead clinches first league crown since 1976

Happy Riverhead players celebrated their team

DEER PARK — Deer Park had already scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning. With two outs and the bases loaded, the Falcons had the tying run on second, the winning run on first and were poised to keep Riverhead from clinching the Suffolk County League IV softball title.

The Blue Waves had not won a league title since 1976.

Sole possession of the championship rested on the right arm of pitcher Julia Morrow. From the fifth inning she did not have her best stuff because, she said afterward, she expected the nail on her right index finger to fall off shortly. “I was kind of mad at myself,” Morrow said. “But thankfully we pulled it out.”

On Morrow’s 138th pitch, Amanda Pesca, the only Falcon not to reach base at all, grounded out to second base. With that, a 7-5 victory and the league championship went to the Blue Waves (17-3, 16-3) last Thursday. Riverhead followed that up with a 12-0 shutout of the Copiague Eagles on Monday.

Morrow’s battery mate, Kara Vonatzski, was fortified by the certitude that Deer Park was not coming back last Thursday.

“I knew we had it,” Vonatzski said. “I was like, ‘We’re going to get this next out, we’re going to win and that’s just how it’s going to be.’ “

Heading into the game, Deer Park (14-6, 13-6) was the only team with a shot at derailing Riverhead’s bid for a league title. But even if the Falcons had won the rest of their league games, they would have needed the Blue Waves to lose out in order to gain a share of the regular-season championship.

That did not happen. Instead it was a day for the Blue Waves to celebrate. As they gathered near the dugout, two players ran inside for the cooler. But as they carried it out, Coach Bob Fox saw them coming and ran. He managed to deflect the coming onslaught of ice with his left arm before teasing his players that they would have caught up with him last year.

In times past, Fox said later, they might not have left Deer Park with the win, but not this senior-laden team. Why? “The toughness,” Fox said. “Staying together. They could have fallen apart here.”

Many of the makings of a collapse were there. After retiring the first batter of the seventh on a groundout, Morrow gave up three straight hits, the last of which scored two runs to cut Riverhead’s lead to 7-5. Morrow got Sam De Marco on a bouncer back to the mound for the second out. A single and then an infield error loaded the bases. Morrow then ran the count on Pesca to 2-0 before coming back with a strike and then inducing a game-ending grounder.

That was the second Deer Park rally Morrow stifled before things got out of control. In the fifth, she struck out the first two batters she faced. But it was at that point, she said, when her fingernail started to bother her and it became evident that she could not throw as well as she normally does.

Morrow allowed a walk and a single before Jackie D’Aries, who had struck out twice, smashed a double off the left-field fence to score two runs. Two batters later, De Marco singled her home before Morrow escaped the jam with a 5-3 lead.

The Blue Waves gave Morrow that five-run cushion early. Three batters into the game, Vonatzski lined a two-run double into the gap in right field. She scored two batters later on a sacrifice fly from Ali Barthalt.

Barthalt doubled two more runs home in the third, knocking Deer Park starter Lisa Bonacasa from the game after two and a third innings. Melissa McGibney entered the game in relief, and with runners on second and third, slammed the door shut with two groundouts.

McGibney held the Blue Waves scoreless until the sixth. But Riverhead did not allow her to build on the momentum of the Falcons’ three-run outburst. With two outs and runners on first and second, Emily Commins lofted a shallow fly ball to center field. Center fielder Sabrina Riley dove for it, but in vain, as it landed just in front of her. Yvonne McKay scored from second and, from first base, Colleen Dougherty beat the relay home. The Blue Waves would need those runs in the seventh.

The last out of that inning ended a 34-year span without a league title for Riverhead. After the game, that fact had not yet registered for Morrow and Vonatzski, but it had for Fox.

“It’s awesome,” he said.