The Egg Harbor Township High School softball team won the state Group IV title in 2017.

Three years later, the Eagles won again, as Press of Atlantic City readers voted them the Greatest High School Team Since 2000.

In both victories, the Eagles united their diverse and wide-spread town and showed us exactly what we miss about high school sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was cool to be a part of (the greatest team contest),” said Emily MacNeil, who played center field for the 2017 Eagles, “and bring back our township again.”

MacNeil says she remembers every detail of the 2017 season.

EHT finished 23-1, beating North Hunterdon 2-1 to win the state Group IV championship at Kean University. The only loss came to Lodi Immaculate in the first round of the Tournament of Champions.

“I remember winning the state championship and running into my teammates,” MacNeil said. “We were all kind of looking at each other and breaking down in tears together. We realized it had all actually paid off.”

It wasn’t just that the Eagles won. It was how they won.

Most of the Eagles grew up playing together on town youth teams. Even today, when they come home from college, the girls will gather at a local batting cage to take some swings.

“We just played with a lot of passion,” said Tori Szrom, who pitched for the Eagles and was The Press 2017 Softball Player of the Year. “It was the chemistry we had. The drive we had to win. We knew we just had to find a way.”

EHT’s late-season and playoff games drew huge crowds. The Eagles had a knack for pulling out thrilling, late-inning wins. Three of their six playoff victories were by one run.

Kaitlyn Riggs, the EHT catcher, singled in the tying run in the sixth inning and hit a game-winning sacrifice fly in the eighth as EHT beat Washington Township 3-2 in a South Jersey Group IV semifinal.

In the South Jersey final, EHT squandered a four-run lead only to rally and beat Rancocas Valley 13-8. Alexa Preziosi, who batted ninth in the EHT order, got the game’s biggest hit in the bottom of the fifth. With two outs and runners at second and third, she ripped a two-run double to center field to trail 8-7.

EHT first baseman Ella Glenn knocked in the tying run and scored the winning run in the state final.

After the state championship win, fire trucks, police cars and ambulances led the Eagles bus back into town with their sirens blaring. Friends and family cheered as the Eagles got off the bus.

“It really wasn’t just for the softball team,” MacNeil said. “It wasn’t just for the high school. It was for the township.”

The Eagles quickly mobilized when The Press Greatest High School Team Since 2000 began this spring. Eagles coach Mary Dunlap, who stepped down in October, urged the players to keep voting.

“She was like, ‘We’re winners. We’re state champions — keep sending it out there,” MacNeil said. “We did bring the township together.”

The Eagles defeated the 2008 Mainland Regional football team in the final. More than 12,500 votes were cast, and the Eagles got 53.7% of the votes.

The contest was a virtual reminder of what the Eagles did in 2017.

It was a virtual reminder of just how a high school team can bring a community together.

And during a spring of no sports, it was nice to compete.

“People are still remembering this incredible season,” MacNeil said. “It’s crazy. I know it has a lot to do with COVID-19 and the quarantine and trying to keep sports alive. But just being a part of something that the township still remembers is an incredible accomplishment. This group of girls is still super close. We’ll never lose that bond.”

Michael McGarry’s Must Win column appears Fridays in The Press.

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