TOMS RIVER, N.J. - The Eastern softball team went so far this season, nearly ascending the mountaintop.
But the Vikings faltered Saturday, and Morris Knolls, a team that resembled Eastern in its youth and aggressiveness, won a 4-3 decision, as well as the state Group 4 softball championship at Toms River North.
The last time that Morris Knolls (30-4) won the state softball title was in 1980. Eastern last won in 1986.
Eastern's players are too young to have witnessed that title, but they will certainly recall the season in which they finished 18-7 and made it to the final.
Eastern pitcher Sam Lemm seemed too dazed by defeat to go into an explanation about what happened. The senior, who'd pitched the Vikings to seven consecutive wins before Saturday, gave up nine hits, struck out seven, and walked none.
The Golden Eagles jumped to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning as Lemm gave up three singles and a double.
However, Eastern had its chances to come back. In the bottom of the first, Morris Knolls pitcher Caitlin O'Connor loaded the bases with walks and hit first baseman Taylor Kreston to force home a run.
And after the Golden Eagles upped their lead to 4-1 on an RBI single by Kiki Baldassari in the top of the second, Eastern had another shot for a big inning.
In the bottom of the third, O'Connor loaded the bases on walks again and Steph Vuono, Eastern's sophomore shortstop, stroked a two-RBI single that cut the lead to 4-3. But the Vikings were unable to capitalize further.
In all, the Morris Knolls junior pitcher walked nine and hit one batter.
"I wasn't finding the strike zone in the beginning of the game," O'Connor said. "I was thinking too much. Toward the fourth or fifth inning I settled down and started finding the strike zone."
But except for a single by Chambers in the sixth inning, O'Connor shut the door on Eastern after the third inning.
"I think we got ahead of ourselves and came into the game a little overconfident," Vuono said. "We just didn't pull it together quick enough and do the little things."
"They have a lot of speed on their team, so it kind of evened out since we have Madison Tiernan and Cherelle Chambers, who run extremely fast, so it was like we were playing ourselves."
Junior third baseman Rachel Bernstein, who made Eastern's final out by smashing a liner at Baldasarri at second, put an upbeat spin on the defeat.
"We weren't supposed to be here," Bernstein said. "It was awesome that we made it here. We shouldn't be walking out with our heads down."
Kreston also saw the silver lining.
"We won the [Olympic] Conference, then we won South Jersey Group 4 and none of us saw it coming," Kreston said. "We played as hard as we could and got rewarded."
Morris Knolls 310 000 0 - 4 9 2
Eastern 102 000 0 - 3 2 2
WP: Caitlin O'Connor. LP: Sam Lemm.
2B: MH- Whitney Ellenberg, Kim Felix.