Softball: Sterling scores early, Palumbo makes it stand up in sectional final win over Kaneland
By Ty Reynolds
STERLING – When the postseason rolls around, you can count on the Sterling softball team to play their best ball.
That trend continued Thursday in the Class 3A sectional final against Kaneland, as junior pitcher Elizabeth Palumbo threw a three-hit shutout and the Golden Warriors offense got her all the run support she’d need in the first inning of a 5-0 victory.
“This is the coolest thing that’s happened in my high school career,” said senior Riley Dittmar, Sterling’s leadoff hitter who was a reserve on the 2019 volleyball state championship team, during a TV interview. “It’s just an amazing feeling.”
It’s Sterling’s fourth sectional title in softball, and first since 2016.
“I don’t want to give it away, it’s a secret,” Katie Dittmar said with a laugh, when asked how Sterling always seems to be primed for a deep postseason run. “I just feel like we’re all starting to come together as a team really well. I feel like we all really wanted to win these games throughout the postseason. In our [regional championship] game against L-P, I feel like that was the most excited we’ve been all season to play a game, and we’ve just only gone up from there.”
Sterling (16-7) took control early in this one. After Palumbo worked a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the first, Riley Dittmar drew a leadoff walk in the bottom of the inning, then went to second on Hannah Jacobs’ sacrifice bunt, and scored on an error when Amayia Hernandez hit a hard grounder to short and the throw to first was high. Palumbo followed with an RBI double to drive in Hernandez all the way from first base, and courtesy runner Nevaeh Frey went to third on another error and scored on a wild pitch for a quick 3-0 lead.
“Everyone was so excited, we were all screaming and yelling,” Katie Dittmar said. “I feel like scoring always gets everybody’s mood up.”
“It changes your mentality with everything, at the plate and defensively. Playing from behind is a little bit different than playing from on top,” Kaneland coach Mike Kuefler said. “They did a great job keeping us off-balance at the plate and putting the ball in play when they needed to, and they took advantage of every offensive situation they had.”
That lead was more than enough for Palumbo. She allowed only four baserunners all game, and one of them was erased by a line-drive double play. She retired seven in a row between the fourth and sixth innings, then set down the last five in order after Rose Roach’s one-out single in the sixth.
She finished with seven strikeouts and one walk, throwing 67 of her 96 pitches for strikes.
“I stayed a little higher in the zone today; that’s not usually what I do, but it was working today,” Palumbo said. “I was trusting my defense, because they were making really good plays, and I leaned on that, too.
“And when you go out there after your team scores runs and you have a lead, it’s a big confidence booster.”
Kaneland (19-6) threatened in the top of the fourth, as Olivia Stoker led off with a bunt single, then stole second and went to third when the throw went high. But Palumbo got a strikeout, induced a pop-up bunt, then got another strikeout to keep the Knights scoreless.
Sterling tacked on a run in the bottom of the fourth on Katie Dittmar’s solo home run just to the right of center field.
“Oh man, it was adrenaline, there were two outs, I just wanted to pick up the team a little bit,” Katie Dittmar said. “I’m really happy that I finally hit a ball over the fence; I’ve been waiting all season for it.”
The Warriors almost had another homer in the fifth, but Hernandez’s high fly ball to center was caught at the top of the fence by Stoker. Hernandez did seize her next opportunity, as her two-out single down the third-base line in the bottom of the sixth drove in Katie Dittmar, who had singled to lead off the inning, for a 5-0 lead.
Kaneland starter McKenna Ryan allowed only one hit and one earned run, walking two with one strikeout in two innings. Grace Algrim gave up two earned runs and six hits in four innings, striking out one without a walk.
Abigail Latka had the other hit for the Knights, a two-out single in the second.
“I don’t think I can put a finger on it for you. Sterling was a little bit more prepared than we were today,” Kuefler said. “But I’m still proud of our girls. We didn’t know what we were going to get after the COVID year how many of the kids were going to come back, and we’re still pretty happy being in the conversation at sectionals.”
Sterling advances to Monday’s 3A Kaneland Supersectional, where the Golden Warriors will face Antioch at 4:30 p.m. in Maple Park. Antioch defeated Wauconda 18-11 in their sectional final Thursday.
“I’m really proud of this team, and we’re playing our best right now,” Palumbo said. “We’re really working together well, and we’ve done a few bonding things, and we’re best friends on and off the field. I think it really helps a lot when you have a deeper connection than maybe other teams do.”
“They’re just putting it together at the right time,” Sterling coach Becki Edmondson added. “I don’t have a secret formula; the girls are just playing really well right now.”