Nikki Panaro and new James Madison coach Jeff Meltzer clashed at times this season. Most of the time it had to do with the senior first baseman’s potential and significance to the team.
“She doesn’t realize how good she really is,” Meltzer said.
That started to change down the stretch. Panaro hit a two-run home run to account for Madison’s only runs in a win against Poly Prep late last month. Last Wednesday, her two-run single was the Knights’ only RBI hit in a semifinal win against Susan Wagner.
And Sunday, with the season on the line, Panaro came up with one of the biggest hits in the history of the PSAL Class A softball championship game. The slugger crushed a fastball from Tottenville’s Nicole Palase over the center fielder wall at St. John’s University to tie the PSAL city title game at 1. Two innings later, Madison dethroned Tottenville and ended its six-year streak of crowns with a 5-2 victory.
“I honestly believe if Nikki didn’t hit that, the whole game would have been different,” senior third baseman Maria Mantagas said. “There were girls crying inside the dugout.”
The furthest thing from Panaro’s mind was hitting a home run. She was just hoping to somehow bloop a ball into the outfield. After all, Palase had a no-hitter going until Kayla Hill broke it up just one inning earlier.
“I thought we had to score sometime,” Panaro said. … “I was just trying to get the ball on the field where no one could get to it.”
She did that in the eighth inning when her blooper off Palase fell into no man’s land in left field. That was the second of four two-out hits for Madison in the inning that clinched the title. In the postseason, Panaro hit .533 with three home runs, 12 RBIs and seven runs scored.
But there was no bigger moment than that game-tying home run. When people think back to the day Tottenville’s streak was broken and James Madison etched its name in the PSAL history book, Panaro’s blast will be foremost in their minds. It’ll be the softball league’s answer to dramatic homers from guys like Kirk Gibson, Carlton Fisk and Bobby Thomson.
“I felt if we were going to make it to a championship game and win a championship game,” Meltzer said, “Nikki Panaro was going to have to come up big.”
It doesn’t get any bigger.