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Tigers top Palisades for CL title

ALLENTOWN - To chase their goal of a Colonial League championship, the seniors on the Northwestern Lehigh softball team had to give up a rite of passage.

Friday was “Senior Skip Day” at Northwestern, but the rules say that if you are absent on the day of a game, you are ineligible to play in that game.

The seniors were all in class Friday, and were rewarded when they reached their goal and beat Palisades 5-4 to become league champions.

“It was a bummer, but worth it,” said Sage Toman, who scored what turned out to be the winning run in the bottom of the sixth inning. “It was 100% worth it. Gold medals are always worth it.”

Toman and Izzy Akelaitis - who are both seniors - teamed with sophomore Abby Dunstan to mount a come-from-behind rally that stretched over the final two innings.

With Palisades up 2-1 going to the bottom of the fifth, Akelaitis picked up the first of two singles she would have late in the game to give the Tigers a baserunner. Dunstan then stepped to the plate and smashed a long fly ball to center field that carried well over the fence at Patriots Park to give Northwestern (19-3) its first lead of the game at 3-2.

Dunstan’s home run gives her a six-game hitting streak during which she is hitting .450 (9-for-20) with a homer, eight runs, and 10 RBIs.

“I think it’s a mentality,” said Dunstan, who is now batting .513 this season. “I know that if I don’t get a hit my team will pick me up, and having that trust makes it 10 times easier at the plate because I don’t really have to worry.”

The lead would not last long as a fielding error was followed by an RBI double by Catie Russo to tie the game 3-3. On the play, Russo was thrown out at third to end the inning when she tried to stretch the double into a triple.

In true Northwestern fashion, the Tigers came right back in the bottom of the sixth as sophomore Lily Kinnon led off with a bloop single to left and moved to second on a ground out by Rylee McGinley.

Toman reached on an infield single, pushing Kinnon to third. Toman quickly swiped second to put two runners in scoring position with two outs.

Akelaitis, who reached the 100-hit milestone for her career earlier in the season, jumped on an offering from pitcher Karlye Teman and ripped it into left field to drive in two runs for a 5-3 lead.

“I think my eyes went wide open on that one because I was looking for a pitch I could hit, and that was the one,” said Akelaitis. “I knew I just needed to keep it simple and get a base hit to score those two runs to get us ahead.

“I was just glad that we got those two extra runs, and we didn’t have to go into extra innings.”

The Pirates (16-5) didn’t seem to care that they were now the hunters and had just one inning to make something happen.

Rhiley Paniktera led off the seventh with a soft line drive over the bag at second and into center field to get on base. A fielding error put two runners on, and two ground balls moved the runners along, bringing in Paniktera to make it a 5-4 game, with Teman on third base with two outs.

Ailish Kelleher grounded a ball to first where Shelby Mitman fielded the ball cleanly and touched the bag ahead of Kelleher to end the game.

“Izzy thrives in those moments and to have that part of the lineup [the middle of the order] coming up was like icing on the cake for me,” said Tiger head coach Kate Farber. “Izzy is just mentally wired to thrive in those situations and I knew that even if she wasn’t going to necessarily get a hit that she was going to put the ball in play and that’s what we needed.”

Farber also praised pitcher Emma Freeman, who threw a complete game and stayed poised on the mound despite five Northwestern errors - all of which came from the fourth inning on and resulted in three unearned runs.

“I knew our bats were just going to keep coming back because whenever they scored a run, we came right back, so it was great to know that my team was going to help me with the bats,” said Freeman. “We did have some miscues defensively, but we were able to pick it up and come back in the last innings to win and head into districts.”

WAITING PATIENTLY … The Colonial League championship is the first for Northwestern since 2021. The Tiger were in the championship game in each of the last two seasons, falling to Bangor in 2022 and Palmerton last season. For Farber, who is in her first season at Northwestern after leading the Northern Lehigh program for seven seasons, the championship is her first since 2018.

DISTRICTS UP AHEAD … Northwestern will be the second seed in the Class 4A playoffs and receives a bye into the semifinals. The Tigers will face the winner of the quarterfinal matchup between Bethlehem Catholic and Wilson.

Palisades 001 101 1 - 4 7 2

N’western 001 022 x - 5 8 5

Teman and Hunter; Freeman and Dunstan. W - Freeman. L - Teman. HR: Northwestern - Dunstan (5th, one on).

Northwestern captured the Colonial League softball championship on Friday with a 5-4 victory over Palisades at Patriots Park in Allentown. NANCY SCHOLZ/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Northwestern's Izzy Akelaitis connects with the ball during Friday's Colonial League title game against Palisades. NANCY SCHOLZ/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
The Tigers greet Abby Dunstan at the plate after she hit a home run during Friday's Colonial League championship game. NANCY SCHOLZ/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Northwestern's Emma Freeman races around the bases during Friday's CL title game. NANCY SCHOLZ/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS