MANTENO – Heading into Saturday’s Class 3A Manteno Sectional final against Manteno, Morris softball coach Jen Lowery thought the outcome would be determined by which team capitalized on the other team’s mistakes. Neither team made many, so it came down to who got the most timely hits.
That team was Manteno, as the Panthers defeated the Redskins, 6-4, and ended Morris’ furthest run in the IHSA tournament since 1998. The Redskins end with a 21-10 record and the school’s first regional title since 2006.
Manteno scored first in the bottom of the first inning. After Morris’ Abby Burns struck out the Panthers’ leadoff hitter, Manteno’s Kiley Zajdzinski walked and Sammy Beckwith singled to put runners on first and third. While trying to pitch around cleanup hitter Brooke Stulga, Burns got one pitch too close, and Stulga drove it out of the park in right-center for a 3-0 Manteno lead.
“That girl is a heck of a player,” Lowery said of Stulga, who also was the winning pitcher. “Great players make great plays in big games, and she did that today. She was very mentally there.
“I went out to talk to Abby before she [Stulga] came up. To [Stulga’s] credit, she was patient and waited. She got a good pitch and drove it out. But Abby never put her head down. She kept battling and kept us in the game.”
The Redskins refused to back down against Stulga, who entered the game with a 0.83 ERA. With two outs in the top of the second, Leah Lines walked and Kellen Bernickus singled. Kelly Kolotka then hit a grounder that took a bad hop off the Manteno shortstop’s face and scored Lines to make it, 3-1.
Manteno answered in the bottom of the third. Zajdzinski led off with a triple to center and Burns got Beckwith to pop out to third. Stulga then walked and Kirstynn Kinast bunted to third. Morris’ Lauren Severson was on the ball quickly and tried to tag Zajzsinski, who was coming down the line. Zajdzinski made it back to third, and Kinast reached first base to load the bases. Burns induced a fly to right, and Zajdzinski did not tag, leaving the bases still loaded. Leegan Boudreau then singled to left, scoring both Zajdsinzki and Stulga to make it 5-1. The next batter, Selena Schulteis, sent a liner screaming toward left field, but Severson reached out with her glove hand and snared it to end the inning.
Morris got right back in it in the top of the fourth. Lines led off with a double to left, and after a strikeout, a single by Kolotka put runners on first and third. Maddy Feeney then walked to load the bases. Taya Torkelson grounded to second, but Feeney avoided the tag and Lines scored to make it 5-2. Severson followed with a double to center, scoring both Kolotka and Feeney to make it, 5-4. Lines and Torkelson, along with Kolotka, finished with two hits apiece for the Redskins, while Severson and Emily Moore each had one.
“Leah and Taya came through big for us today by getting on base,” Lowery said. “And Lauren Severson had a huge hit to drive in a couple runs. Both teams played their best. It was a really good game. It never came down to capitalizing on a mistake. It came down to getting that key hit, and they got a couple more than we did.”
Manteno added an unearned run for insurance in the bottom of the fifth.
“Our girls never gave up,” Lowery said. “These seniors set the bar high and put those expectations out there. We have a lot of talent in our lower levels coming up. We return our battery and middle infield, and that’s a nice start for next year. Those girls got some great experience this year and hopefully learned some things that will help us out next year.
“This team had a great attitude all year, and they were really able to put a positive spin on things.”