BLOOMINGTON – Since the opening day of practice, the word “state” has been whispered by and about the Newark Norsemen softball team.
Monday on Illinois Wesleyan University’s Inspiration Field, those whispers grew into loud, joyous yells of celebration.
Newark on Monday followed up the program’s second sectional championship with its first berth into the IHSA State Finals, playing just a little bit better than underdog Heyworth in the main three phases of the game – pitching, hitting and defense – to score a 1-0 victory and claim the championship plaque of the Class 1A Illinois Wesleyan Supersectional. The Norsemen will face Illini Bluffs at 10 a.m. Friday 10 in the state semifinal at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex in Peoria.
“We talked about [going to IHSA State] our first practice,” Norsemen coach Tim Schofield said, his team now 31-3-1. “With our pitching and the amount of girls who play all summer – they leave here [at the end of the school season] and go play 40 or 50 games – I thought we had a good group, a solid core, and it’s come together.
“We’re playing good at a really good time of the year.”
Casey-Westfield and Forreston are the other members of Class 1A’s Final Four.
Heyworth ace pitcher Emma Slayback (7 IP, 0 ER, 7 K) was spectacular despite tasking the loss, limiting the potent Newark lineup to three hits and one unearned run. The Newark duo of starter Kodi Rizzo (win, 4 2/3 IP, 0 R, 11 K) and Kaitlyn Schofield (save, 2 1/3 IP, 0 R, 6 K), however, was slightly better, as was the defense behind them that played seven errorless innings, including standout plays by Rizzo in the circle, Ryan Williams at third base, Peyton Wohead behind the plate and Danica Peshia in right field.
It was an error – one of the three on the day committed by the Hornets defense – that allowed the game’s only run to cross the plate. In the top of the second with one out, Rizzo lofted a soft pop-up into shallow right field. Heyworth’s second baseman drifted back and under it, but the ball bounced out of her glove and fell to the ground.
Two batters later with two away, Taylor Kruser delivered another soft fly into right, this one falling untouched to allow the Rizzo, who ran on contact, to cruise around the bases and score to put the Norsemen ahead, 1-0.
“That’s kind of our M.O.,” Coach Schofield said. “We put the ball in play. I tell them every day to put the ball in play and make the defense work. Find that hole, it doesn’t matter if it’s a line shot off the fence or it’s a blooper over second base. Just get on base and we’ll keep working from there, trying to put pressure on the defense.”
Mostly because of the five combined bases on balls they issued, Rizzo and Schofield did have to work their way out of a few jams. That included two runners on with two outs in the fourth, which Rizzo extinguished with a strikeout, and two more Heyworth runners in the fifth when No. 9 hitter Emily Phillips hit a bloop single to center, prompting Tim Schofield to bring on Kaitlyn Schofield for the third time through the order, and she walked the first batter she faced.
Like Rizzo in the fourth, however, Kaitlyn Schofield notched a strikeout to end that threat and another to end the sixth with a runner at second. She then struck out the side 1-2-3 in the seventh to start the celebration.
“I think Kaitlyn and I work well when we split games,” Rizzo said. “We’re a good duo when we pitch together, and it showed today. It is amazing. Knowing that we have an amazing team and we just made school history, that’s just the best feeling in the entire world. I’ve never felt happier.”
Heyworth ends its season with a 20-9 mark.
“We’re battle-tested, and we thought we had a chance right until the very end,” Heyworth coach J.J. Slayback said. “What a great ballgame. Hat’s off to Newark. I hope they go all the way.”