Steinert softball head coach Jean Ruppert (right) accepts the Tournament of Champions first place trophy June 8, 2018 at Ivy Hill Park in South Orange. The Spartans won three games against group champions from around the state to claim the title. (Photo by John Blaine.)

The history of Steinert softball is long and illustrious, and debates over various aspects of the program could rage long into the night.

But it would be hard to argue about which is the greatest single inning in the greatest game in the Spartan softball annals.

That would be Inning One, on June 8, 2018 at Ivy Hill Park on the campus of Seton Hall University.

Steinert was battling Lodi-Immaculate Conception in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title game. No Hamilton Township team had ever won a TOC championship before in any sport. In fact, just this March, Nottingham boys’ basketball became the first team from Hamilton to even win a TOC game.

Here stood Steinert, on the precipice of local history. The next two hours would tell the tale.

But before detailing that memorable night, it’s best to recap how the Spartans arrived there, starting with their only losing streak of the season.

It would have been hard to believe, on April 11, that in a few months the Spartans would be one win from the ultimate crown. Steinert had just lost their second straight game to eventual Group II champion Robbinsville to drop to 1-2.

“I just think those losses to Robbinsville made us tougher,” senior shortstop Carli Backlund said. “They’re a great team, we saw some things we had to do and it made us want it more.”

That was followed by a five-game winning streak before losing to Northern Burlington, 4-0. Five more wins ensued before Steinert suffered its worse loss of the season, 1-0, to West Windsor-Plainsboro South at home on May 3. It was not safe to be in the vicinity of coach Jean Ruppert after that one, but the veteran mentor said later in the season it was unreasonable for her to expect the team to have razor-sharp focus each and every game, especially when it was playing four in five days, as was the case that day.

Cora Bridgers. Carli Backlund, Kaylee Whittaker and Alexandra Haley celebrate after Steinert High defeated Lodi Immaculate Conception, 9-0, to claim the Tournament of Champions title June 8, 2018. It is the first TOC title for any Hamilton Township team. (Photo by John Blaine.)

From that point, Steinert won 15 of its final 16 games, with the only loss coming against pesky Robbinsville in the Mercer County Tournament finals. Steinert bounced back 24 hours later to defeat once-beaten Burlington Township in a Central Jersey Group III semifinal.

On May 29, a rematch with Northern Burlington produced a belly-burning 1-0 win in which the winning run scored on a wild pitch in the top of the seventh. It was a game in which most softball observers felt was not just for the CJ III championship, but for the state championship as well; as the teams were extremely close in ability.

From there it looked easy. Steinert beat Hammonton 5-1 in the Group III semifinals as the Spartans reached the Group III championship game for the third straight year. On June 2 at Kean University, junior pitcher Kaylee Whittaker threw a one-hitter against Indian Hills as Steinert won, 2-0, for their second state title in three years.

“Coming off last season into this season, I was kind of unsure how we’d be,” senior shortstop/back-up pitcher Cora Bridgers said. “I knew we graduated six seniors, kind of a big loss, but then some of the newcomers did really well and we didn’t have any doubts coming in here today.”

Doubts were hard to come by with Whittaker on the mound, as she went from outstanding to phenomenal in the state tournament. In six state games—four which were on the road or at neutral sites due to Steinert’s No. 4 seed—Whittaker allowed four runs (three earned), 17 hits and 12 runs while striking out 58 in 42 innings. She threw two one-hitters and three shutouts.

If anyone should have been bummed about Whittaker’s excellence, it was Bridgers, a quality senior pitcher whose time in the circle was limited due to the junior’s greatness.

“Not at all,” Bridgers said when asked if it bothered her being the back-up. “Kaylee is just amazing. Of course you want to pitch as many games as possible, but when you have someone like Kaylee out there, you have to expect her to pitch and be happy she’s on your team.”

It’s no coincidence Steinert’s three straight finals trips have been in Whittaker’s three years.

“We were talking about it at breakfast today, and she’s right up there with the greatest in school history,” Ruppert said after Whittaker’s 11-strikeout effort against Indian Hills. “We had Jackie Sasko, she was outstanding, but Kaylee is right there. She has been so good for us, especially in these big games.”

And while Steinert celebrated on the infield at Kean, little did anyone realize the best was yet to come.

Steinert pitcher Kaylee Whittaker peformed brillantly in the postseason. In three Tournament of Champions wins, she allowed three runs, nine hits and three walks while striking out 33 in 21 innings. (Photo by John Blaine.)

Just as they were in the sectionals, Steinert received a fourth seed for the 2nd Annual Softball Tournament of Champions. The Spartans easily dispatched of Roselle Park, 5-1, as Whittaker drove in two runs and pitched a three-hitter with 11 strikeouts.

Then came top-seeded St. John Vianney, the state’s top-ranked team with a 26-1 record and 55-2 mark over the past two years—with both losses coming to Donovan Catholic. The Non-Public A champs were coming off a 13-4 loss to DC two nights earlier in the Shore Conference Tournament final and were an angry bunch.

So what happens?

Freshman Bella Truelove crushed a three-run homer to give Steinert a 3-0 lead just three batters into the game. It continued a pattern, as the Spartans did not trail in one inning of all nine postseason games.

“Going into the St. John Vianney game, our team obviously knew that this would be the hardest and most threatening game of the season,” Backlund said. “We went up against the No. 1 team in the state, so we basically said ‘We have nothing to lose!’ We went into that game fired up and hungry so when Bella hit that home run we knew we had a chance to battle with them the whole game.”

Ruppert felt Dara Kelly’s walk and Backlund’s single to start the game were key.

“I think those two things helped Bella to relax and just focus on hitting the ball,” the coach said. “It was a great confidence boost for us to be able to get on the board early and definitely helped us to feel good going out on defense. We knew they would do everything possible to answer back in the first, which they did.”

Indeed, SJV came back with two in the bottom of the second, but Whittaker nursed the lead until the end for a heart-pounding 3-2 victory. It rivaled the NBC win for pure tension and excitement.

“We all knew how good St. John Vianney was coming into the game, but we had confidence that we would put up a good fight no matter what,” junior second baseman Nicole Cerasi said. “When we ended up beating the first seed, it was an extreme confidence boost for the whole team. We knew we were the underdogs coming into the game, so I think getting those runs right in the beginning got us even more excited and into the game. It made us want to win even more.”

Steinert’s reward for bouncing SJV was 3rd-seeded Lodi Immaculate Conception, the Non-Public B champion that stunned Robbinsville, 12-3, in the TOC semifinals.

For those who don’t follow high school sports, Non-Public school teams are usually the winner in the TOCs in most sports, as their ability to draw players from wide areas give them distinct advantages. Steinert had to beat not just one, but both parochial schools in the tournament.

Which brings us to where we started, “The Greatest Inning.”

After Whittaker retired the side in the top of the first, Steinert went to work.

Dara Kelly singled, Backlund bunted and reached on an error. After an out, Whittaker delivered an RBI single and Bridgers hit an RBI double.

“I guess my first thought as the inning got going was just ‘OK, whew, they are relaxed,’” Ruppert said. “It was a big stage to play on.”

No one knew at the time, but it was already over. And then the fun started.

Alex Haley stroked a two-run single to make it 4-0 with just one out.

“Going through my mind in that first inning I knew we had to jump on them quick,” Backlund said. “We knew from watching them play Robbinsville that they were a good hitting team so if they got the bat on the ball they would get a rally going.”

‘I am super proud of the girls and the commitment they made to each other and to the program.’

A Taylor Hawkes single and Megan Brugnoli bunt loaded the bases and Cerasi hit a three-run double to cushion the lead to 7-0. Still one out.

“That first inning felt unreal,” Cerasi said. “After seeing how they beat Robbinsville the game before, I expected them to get hits on us right away. But when we shut their first three batters out and came out with hit after hit, I just thought “This can’t be happening.’”

Oh, it was happening. And it still wasn’t over as Backlund ripped a two-run double. Eleven batters into the game for New Jersey’s ultimate softball championship, and Steinert had a 9-0 lead.

“The first inning was insane,” Whittaker said. “I’ve seen us put up runs like that but I was not expecting that explosive of an inning in the final. We all were pumped up and using each other’s hits as confidence for ourselves to go out and do the same thing. We knew we had to put up runs early and first because we saw what happened in their semifinal game. But to get nine in the first was something no one expected.”

The only problem was, there were still six innings remaining. Plenty of time for a team to score some runs, put pressure on the Spartans and mount a comeback.

“As (the inning) continued the obvious thought was ‘Wow!’ That was a heck of a first inning,” Ruppert said. “Then we just tried to stay focused on the energy of the game and not let them get too comfy. There was a lot of softball left to play at that point.”

It was a message the players received in no uncertain terms. Steinert had backed Whittaker with solid, sometimes outstanding defense throughout the states, and it was not going to stop now.

“It was a great inning to be able to experience,” Cerasi said. “But we knew we had to bring our defense and not take our foot off the gas pedal in the field.”

“Getting all of those runs gave us that cushion we needed,” Backlund said. “But coach Rupp kept reminding us that they are the kind of team to not give up and we need to keep our foot on the gas.”

Whittaker, of course, was at her finest with so much at stake. She finished with a two-hitter and 15 strikeouts. With two strikes on her final batter, a pitch was fouled off and her body language showed temporary frustration. That lasted another 10 seconds, before she got the final strikeout to seal a 9-0 victory and start the celebration.

What was truly impressive is her nerves didn’t kick in until her work was done.

“I wasn’t even shaking and my heart wasn’t pounding,” she said of her mindset before the final pitch. “It was kind of odd. I went in as if it was any other game so it ended just like that. It didn’t truly hit me until we were handed the trophy. When we got that final strikeout, I was in complete shock that we won the entire thing. It didn’t seem real at first.”

It was real all right, along with Steinert’s 26-5 record and Whittaker’s sterling stats. In three TOC wins, she allowed three runs, nine hits and three walks while striking out 33 in 21 innings.

But it wasn’t just Whittaker, as contributions came from everywhere. Leadership and talent were provided by seniors Backlund, Bridgers, Brugnoli, Hawkes, Kelly, Olivia Owens and Ashley Kinczel. Underclassmen contributed throughout the year, including Cerasi, Haley, Grace Gaskill, Heather Kerlin, Truelove and Courtney McLaughlin.

“At the beginning of the past two seasons, coach has told us to forget about our successes in the past and focus on the new season,” Cerasi said. “It was hard to think about getting as far, or farther in this year’s case, then the previous seasons. As a team, we tried to stay humble and just leave everything we had out on the field and whatever happened, happened.”

What happened had never happened before in Hamilton sports history.

“The first state title in 2016 was tremendous, being only a sophomore and the starting shortstop,” Backlund said. “But the TOC title was such an indescribable feeling considering the teams we had to get past. SJV and Immaculata are two spectacular teams of talented girls so this one was a little more special to me.”

The final words belong to Ruppert, who waited a long time to get her first state title and is making up for it in a big way.

“I am super proud of the girls and the commitment they made to each other and to the program,” the coach said. “There are a lot of very talented teams out there, and we are thrilled to be able to be a part of this. We appreciate the moment for sure!”