One of the best things about sports is that the players and coaches for the Eastern softball team can wake up one Saturday morning in June and go compete in the state championship game.
Against all odds.
Despite all expectations.
To their own amazement.
"For our program to find itself in a state final is really unbelievable," Eastern coach Jamie McGroarty said. "It came from nowhere."
This stuff happens, just not very often. Most of the time, a team such as Eastern – a good team, not a great one - will win a tournament game or two, then pack up the bats and helmets and scatter for the summer.
But every once in a while, magic happens. You can't predict it. You can't plan for it. You can't even count on it extending past the sectional semifinals, or the sectional finals, or the state semifinals.
But you sure can enjoy it.
"I'll always remember this, even when I get old," Eastern senior infielder Rachel Bernstein said. "We never thought we'd get this far. It's beyond what we could have imagined."
Make no mistake: Eastern is good. The Vikings have an 18-6 record. They won the Olympic American division title. They have a top player in senior pitcher Sam Lemm, who is heading to the University of South Carolina-Aiken on a softball scholarship.
But at 1 p.m. Saturday, Eastern will play Morris Knolls (29-5) in the Group 4 state championship. That's a long way – a long, wild way – from May 1, when the Vikings were Just Another Team with a 9-5 record.
"We seemed to find our identity halfway through the season," McGroarty said. "That, along with Sam Lemm's pitching, has propelled us to an unexpected place."
Lemm, who has a 15-6 record with a 1.12 ERA, has raised her game in the tournament. She has allowed just one earned run in postseason play. She pitched a shutout in a 4-0 victory over two-time defending state champion Williamstown, and struck out 12 – including the last batter with the bases loaded – in the South Jersey final against Shawnee.
But it has been more than a hot pitcher for the Vikings. This is a balanced team that is getting good production from Bernstein (.274, 10 RBIs), Steph Vuono (.366, 12 steals), Cherelle Chambers (.281, 14 steals), Megan Parker (.327), Gen Gaynor (.291, 21 RBIs), and Madison Tiernan (.373, 35 steals), among others.
Mostly, the Vikings have that look in their eye. They're in that special place, playing loose, with confidence and unwavering support for one another.
"We're all effort and attitude," Bernstein said. "It's like we're all playing for each other. No matter what happens, we're up in the dugout, supporting each other."
Eastern, which was the No. 5 seed in the South Jersey tournament, faces a tough challenge in Morris Knolls. The top seed in the North I sectional has a sensational player in junior pitcher Caitlin O'Connor (0.60 ERA, 331 strikeouts; .485 batting average with 16 extra-base hits).
Eastern an underdog? These Vikings wouldn't have it any other way.
"Hopefully, we can keep Cinderella dancing one more game," McGroarty said.