James Madison could see the end coming quickly. They were three outs away from a second straight finals loss to Tottenville. Tears were already falling inside the dugout. All the hope and hard work was going to be for naught.
But all of that changed with one mighty swing.
Senior first baseman Nikki Panaro led off the top of the seventh with a long home run to center field to tie the game and give the Knights life. There would be other twists and turns afterward, but there wasn’t a more important hit in No. 2 Madison’s thrilling, 5-2, eight-inning win over No. 1 Tottenville in the PSAL Class A city title game Sunday at St. John’s University.
The Knights ended the Pirates’ six-year reign as titleholders and won their first-ever crown. Tottenville had won 88 straight PSAL games dating back to 2006.
“I honestly believe if Nikki didn’t hit that, the whole game would have been different,” third baseman Maria Mantagas said. “There were girls crying inside the dugout.”
Mantagas was in the middle of everything after that. The senior drove in Caitlyn Ganley with a sacrifice fly later in the top of the seventh to give Madison (19-1) a 2-1 lead against Tottenville pitcher Nicole Palase, who had a no-hitter going until the sixth.
The Pirates fired right back with an improbable rally that started when they were just one out from elimination. Sophomore catcher Jennifer Palase ripped a two-out double into the left-field corner and scored when Christina Penna hit a grounder that took a bad hop and got through Mantagas. When Palase scored, Tottenville (21-1) exploded into a wild celebration, almost as if it had already won.
“What are they celebrating about?” Madison pitcher Kayla Hill said she was thinking. “We’re still in this game. My team doesn’t give up.”
Meanwhile, Mantagas was beside herself at third base – and dying to get another opportunity.
“I can’t explain to you how it feels missing the ball with two outs in the seventh inning in the championship game,” she said. “I can’t explain the feeling in words, but it isn’t a good one. I had to come through one way or another.”
With two outs in the eighth, the Knights put together a furious, championship-winning rally. Sophomore shortstop Gina Gerone started it with a single and Panaro dunked a blooper into left field for a hit. Sophomore catcher Samantha Rodriguez followed with a walk and senior second baseman Caitlyn Ganley rolled a grounder that took a bad hop on second baseman Lisa Cutrona and found its way into right field. Gerone scored to make it 3-2 and then Mantagas ripped a line-drive single up the middle to drive in another run.
That’s when junior left fielder Becky Ganley made sure Tottenville would not rally. She hit another RBI single, Madison’s fourth hit of the inning, to make it 5-2. Then, with Tottenville down to its final out in the bottom half, she laid out for a full extension catch to her left to rob Victoria McFarland of a sure double.
“I keep replaying it in my head over and over again,” Hill said. “I get excited thinking about it.”
Panaro’s home run brought back familiar feelings. The slugger enjoyed an incredible stretch run. She drove in her team’s lone runs in a non-league win against Poly Prep and had a big two-RBI single in a 3-0 victory over Susan Wagner in the semifinals Wednesday. On Sunday in the seventh, she was just trying to get on base.
“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.”
Her home run fulfilled a prophecy that coach Jeff Meltzer had long ago.
“I felt if we were going to make it to a championship game and win a championship game, Nikki Panaro was going to have to come up big,” said Meltzer, in his first year taking over for long time coach Bill Dumont.
She did and so did Madison, etching its name in the history books.
“We kept coming back, we kept fighting,” Hill said. “We absolutely refused to lose.”