Softball: Freshman Gianna Cunningham, Benet walk it off in the eighth to beat Charleston in Class 3A third-place game

Cunningham’s one-out single gives Benet 4-3 win

Benet Academy's Gianna Cunningham makes contact with the ball against Benet Academy during the Class 3A State third place game on Saturday, June 10, 2023 at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex in Peoria.

PEORIA – Gianna Cunningham may just be a freshman, but she was thinking like a hitter wise beyond her years with the game on the line June 10.

She came through like one, too.

Cunningham, Benet’s No. 7 hitter, was up with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the eighth in a tie game in the Class 3A third-place game. Cunningham worked the count full and put herself in the mind of Charleston pitcher Addison Shrader.

“I kind of figured that she wasn’t going to walk me. Either way, we would have scored a run,” Cunningham said. “I figured she would throw me a strike and so I went up there and was ready to swing.”

Cunningham hit a liner to left field that the Charleston outfielder couldn’t quite corral. Angela Horejs came in with the winning run as Benet took the Class 3A third-place game 4-3 at the Louisville Sports Complex in Peoria.

Members of the Benet Academy softball team gather behind home plate to celebrate winning the Class 3A State third place game over Charleston on Saturday, June 10, 2023 at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex in Peoria.

Benet’s third-place finish matches the trophy won in the program’s previous state appearance, 2011, thanks to their young kids.

“Young freshman with an opportunity in a big spot,” Benet coach Jerry Schilf said. “She just had to relax and focus. That’s what we were looking for and she did it.”

Cunningham got the opportunity when Charleston chose to intentionally walk Gianna Horejs to load the bases. Schilf, in his 24th season as Benet head coach, had a brief meeting with Cunningham, 0-for-3 up to that point, before her at-bat.

The message?

“Honestly he was just telling me the last at-bat that I had popped up. He wanted a line drive somewhere in the outfield, which is what I did,” Cunningham said. “I just took a couple of deep breaths and then I realized that I could do this.”

Cunningham came through in the clutch in more ways than one. She threw an inning of shutout ball in relief of Alex O’Rourke, who struck out seven and scattered eight hits over seven innings. Cunningham got help, too. Junior catcher Grace Babich threw out a runner trying to steal second, her second caught stealing, to end Charleston’s eighth-inning threat.

“That was huge, amazing,” Cunningham said.

Benet Academy players Taylor Sconza and Bridget Chapman hoist the Class 3A State softball third place trophy on Saturday, June 10, 2023 at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex in Peoria.

It set the stage for Horejs, a sophomore who was 3-for-4 with three singles, to single to start Benet’s winning rally. Bridget Chapman walked and the two moved up on a Babich sacrifice bunt.

“It was kind of intense being the winning run,” Horejs said. “Starting us off, I was nervous, but I knew I had to be confident to start us off.”

Horejs helped spark Benet earlier.

A day after being shut out 10-0 in six innings by eventual champion Lemont, Benet (25-12) got behind 2-0 against Charleston (28-7) after an inning.

The Redwings bounced back with a three-run third. Chapman drilled a double to score Taylor Sconza with the tying run and a Babich grounder scored Horejs for a 3-2 lead.

“It’s really just about picking ourselves up,” Horejs said. “As the season moved along we’ve got good at when we’ve been down to keep the momentum going and not put ourselves in a deficit.”

It was a season of picking itself up for Benet, which was back at state despite playing just one senior, Sconza.

The Redwings started the season 9-1, but then lost all three of their pitchers to injury for a spell. Cunningham, one of those pitchers, missed three weeks with a sprained ankle. The East Suburban Catholic Conference schedule was unforgiving for such a short-handed team, but the Redwings caught fire in the playoffs.

And they did it from any spot in the order. No. 9 hitter Marikate Ritterbusch, a sophomore, had two singles June 10 and started Benet’s three-run rally in the third.

“We just started hitting the heck out of the ball and here we are,” Schilf said. “The bottom of my order hits like crazy. [Rittenbusch], you look at her and don’t expect anything, then you look at her batting average and she’s hitting over .300.”

Joshua  Welge

Joshua Welge

I am the Sports Editor for Kendall County Newspapers, the Kane County Chronicle and Suburban Life Media, covering primarily sports in Kendall, Kane, DuPage and western Cook counties. I've been covering high school sports for 24 years. I also assist with our news coverage.