NORMAL – One softball team was trying to become the first in the large-school division in nearly 40 years to reach state after entering the playoffs with a .500 or worse record while the other was just attempting to advance to the state finals for the first time in its history.
While Minooka captivated fans of the underdog following its stunning 3-1 win over top-ranked Lincoln-Way East in the sectional finals, Rock Island finally broke through for the first time and assured itself of its initial trophy in the sport in the process.
The Rocks used a two-run home run from Lauryn Stegall in the third inning to take control and relied on a four-hit, 10-strikeout performance from pitcher Ashley Peters to help it capture a 3-0 victory in the Class 4A Illinois State University Super-Sectional at Marian Kneer Stadium in Normal.
Rock Island (29-5) advances to Friday’s 3 p.m. semifinals at EastSide Centre in East Peoria, where it meets either St. Charles North or York.
Minooka (20-17) hoped to join Downers Grove North’s 1979 team as the only large-division schools who had records of .500 or worse at the start of the playoffs to advance to state. The Indians also looked to return to state for the first time since 2013, when they captured the championship in their only appearance there.
"She was a tough pitcher, so hats off to her," Minooka coach Mark Brown said. "It's tough to play from behind when they have a pitcher that's throwing like that. But our girls battled to the very end and we had runners at the corners and had the tying run up in the seventh but just came up short. Our bats just couldn't get it going and this late, you need to be hit to advance and we just couldn't get it done. Hats off to them and their pitcher since they're a great program and we wish them the best of luck.
The Indians had their best threat in the second inning as Stacey Tyrell led off with a single, Gianna Pullara sacrificed her and Faith Chada reached on an error. But Peters got out of the jam by striking out the final two hitters.
"It's hard, but we made history by getting this far, so we were excited about that," Tyrell said. "We got this far by working together and really had faith that we could make it all the way. All of the seniors are going to come back and cheer them on since we know that they can make it farther than we did this year. We all loved each other and were so close so no one was ever down. We're really proud, especially to get this far in our senior year."
Rock Island moved in front for good in the third when Peters (2 for 3) got a one-out single and then scored when Stegall smacked a two-run blast off of Indians starter Alex Loizon, who allowed seven hits in five innings while striking out six, to make it a 2-0 game.
"They were good hitters, and I wasn't expecting them to be good as they were," Loizon said. "And their pitcher was really good. In previous years we lost in our first or second regional game, so to go this far was a good way to end my senior season. There's so many young players and they have so much potential. I hope they use this motivation for next year. This year we were as close as we've been. We were all friends on and off the field."
The Rocks added an insurance run in the following frame when Emma Spurgetis led off with a single and stole second base. One out later, Heather Motley singled and took second while Spurgetis scored.
Meanwhile, Peters was rolling along. After allowing a one-out infield single by Pullara in the fourth, she set down the next nine hitters that she faced before allowing a one-out infield hit to Chada in the seventh. Amber Zilinger later reached on an error which brought up the potential tying run, but the lefthander ended things with a strikeout.
"This is a really talented group of girls," Rocks coach Chris Allison said. "They work hard and when you have talent, things can happen. I saw Minooka and knew they were a scrappy team since they beat two very good teams. This is our first time to state for our program so I want the girls to enjoy it because it's something that hadn't been done."
The good news for the Indians is that they only graduate five of the 17 players on their roster. That figures to provide Brown with plenty of optimism for the 2019 campaign.
"We were talking after the game and there were some teary eyes, but you could see some motivation," Brown said. "I told them to keep this feeling locked away somewhere and next May to call on it and use it as motivation to take the next step. I'm so proud of them since they worked hard all year and I told them to keep their heads up walking off this field."