By Steve Sears
The Morris Knolls Golden Eagles Girls Softball team enjoyed a superb 2019 season.
In fact, call it a dream season. Even though the Golden Eagles were upended in the state playoffs by a stellar Mount Olive Marauder ball club by a 3 -2 score, they defeated the same club in the Morris County Tournament final in a back and forth game for the ages.
And junior Skye Eppel’s name will forever be etched in Morris Knolls sports history as “hero.”
“We won our conference and county championship,” says proud Head Coach Keith Heinemann, who is no stranger to success. His Morris Knolls teams have won 278 games and nine division crowns (including this season) while he has been at the helm, and the Golden Eagles won the Morris County Tournament by coming from behind and defeating Mount Olive (who they also defeated in conference play during the regular season), 11 – 9. “We had a great year this year. We play in a very tough conference and to win that was special. Anytime you can win the conference you’ve got to play well every time you take the field and we did that.”
“Winning the county is always a very special accomplishment. We play in one of the toughest counties in the state in my opinion. When you can win both championships in a year, it’s really special.”
The future is bright. Heinemann loses just two seniors to graduation, meaning a majority of the team’s nucleus returns in 2020.
The Golden Eagles sported a 23-6 final record, and 10-2 league record. There were many highlights to the season. There were big wins over Chatham, who was the Group 3 runner-up this season, and over Ramsey, Group 2 state title winner.
Heinemann cites the leadership of his two seniors as a key to the season. “My two seniors, Brielle Eike and Maddison Perna,” says Heinemann, “were great leaders for us this year on and off the field. Brielle split time at catcher and first base. Maddison was our starting shortstop. Both played very well defensively and provided many big hits throughout the year for us in key times.” Other key contributors were Kayla Turcios, who was 16-1 as a pitcher and had a batting average of .360 for the season, led the team with fifteen extra base hits, five of them homeruns. Second baseman Carley Mahan led the team with a .402 batting average and hits with 39, and Eppel covered centerfield and batted .308 on the year. “She may have had the biggest hit of the season, which was a walk off 3-run homerun in the bottom of the 7th to win the county championship,” adds Heinemann of Eppel.
The county tournament was indeed the year’s pinnacle. The Golden Eagles, who were seeded first, knocked off Mendham, the # 12 seed, 9-3, to advance to the finals. The Morris Knolls offensive explosion commenced in the 3rd inning, as they scored three times on four hits. Mary Griffin and Eppel both doubled, Eppel’s double scoring Griffin, and Perna tripled home Eppel. A Mendham throwing error then allowed Perna to come home safely. In the 4th inning, starting pitcher Turcios delivered a leadoff homer and also singled as the Golden Eagles batted around. Eppel contributed a double, and Nicole Florey, Casey Heitmann, Mahan and Jessica Arminio all had singles. Morris Knolls tallied six times to take a 9-2 lead into the 6th inning, which was enough padding for the victory.
Pitching a complete game, Turcios struck out four, walked three, and yielded seven hits, continuing her solid season.
A few days later, the Golden Eagles won their first Morris County Tournament championship in six years, defeating 6th seeded Mount Olive. “This year’s county championship I would say was one of the best games I have been part of,” states Heinemann. “I would also say that it was the best county game ever played. It had everything! Lead changes, a great comeback by Mount Olive scoring 5 runs with 2 outs in the top of the 7th to set up the unforgettable walk off homerun by Skye Eppel. It had two great teams that competed to the very end. It was a game of great emotional swings for both teams.”
Heinemann watched his club take a 2-0 first inning lead on an Eppel single and Arminio’s two-run homer. Mount Olive remained scoreless through the first three innings, adding just one hit in the second inning and two in the third inning. Mount Olive would eventually gain a 4-2 lead, but Morris Knolls struck back.
With a man on base in inning number five, Perna doubled, and Turcios singled and Heitmann doubled, enabling the Golden Eagles to lead, 5-4. The next inning, the lead was extended to 8 -4 when Florey, Eppel, Perna and Mahan all singled, the Golden Eagles scoring three additional runs.
The 7th inning was a heart stopper. Mount Olive, not to be denied, rallied and scored five runs to regain the lead, 9-8.
Perhaps a lesser team would’ve folded, a letdown in emotion getting the best of them after squandering a big lead. But the Golden Eagles, who also had last season’s early first round MCT exit on their minds, exhibited battle-tested fortitude and mounted a last inning comeback.
And Eppel, a junior, was about to live a dream that every athlete has. Her second homerun of the season was an epic one.
After Eike singled and Florey walked, Morris Knolls was down to its last out when Eppel connected solidly off of Mount Olive pitcher Anna Callahan, the ball sailing and landing beyond the outfield wall. Eike and Florey touched home plate first as Eppel raced jubilantly around the bases, her three-run homer winning the game and tourney for Morris Knolls.
Eppel was also named Most Valuable Player of the tourney.
As the Morris Knolls Golden Eagles face the future they do so as proud county champions, and hopes are very high for future success. Heinemann says, “I think we have a chance to be very competitive next year, but a lot of things have to fall into place. It all starts with how well the girls gel together. If we don’t have great team unity, we will fall short of any goals we set for ourselves. We will also have to work even harder next year and sacrifice for one another to have a chance. If those things happen, I believe it will give us a chance to compete with anyone.”