NEW LENOX – It didn’t take much to figure out why the Lincoln-Way Central softball team was pumped going into its Class 4A sectional final matchup with district rival Lincoln-Way East on Thursday.
The top-seeded Knights’ pitching and defense kept that excitement going throughout the team’s 3-1 win over the second-seeded Griffins (24-5).
Central will play St. Charles North in the supersectional round at 4:30 p.m. Monday at Sandburg in Orland Park.
“It’s a cliché, but we really tried to treat this as it’s just a game,” Central coach Jeff Tarala said. “I know they get emotional about it, and you try to let them have that, too. You know what I mean? Because you want to let them have the experience.”
From the start, the Knights’ defense proved itself against an East lineup that had scored 39 runs in its past three postseason games.
After allowing a hit in the first inning, Central star pitcher Lyndsey Grein forced East slugger Katie Stewart to pop up, and the Knights’ infield was able to convert the simple out into a double play.
Grein and the Central defense proceeded to retire nine consecutive batters over three innings, most of whom hit into groundouts. She lauded her teammates, especially catcher Isabella Wilkerson, whom she said was “amazing at calling pitches.”
“I have heck of a defense, and I’m really thankful for that,” Grein said. “It makes it a lot easier.”
East pitcher Taylor Hochman held Central’s batters at bay through the first two innings before Wilkerson got the Knights on the board first with a solo home run in the third inning.
East’s Katie Stewart proved her versatility, playing catcher instead of her usual position at third base. With a Knights runner on third in the fourth inning, Stewart threw her out to help the Griffins from ceding further runs.
“She came in, and she did her job like we asked her to,” East coach Elizabeth Hyland said.
The Griffins struck back in the fifth when third baseman Danielle Stewart doubled and advanced to third on Hailey Malito’s bunt. Mackenzie Gallagher then singled to bring Stewart home and tie the score at 1.
But the Knights (28-3) took command of the tight game in the sixth inning after left fielder Kathryn Ponton singled and right fielder Grace Kmak reached base on a bunt after a rare error by the Griffins. Central’s Jamie Widule later singled to bring home both runners and put the Knights up, 3-1.
Widule said she tried to focus on the task in front of her to help her team in a big spot.
“My mentality was just to block everything out and just see ball, hit ball,” she said.
It was up to Grein and the defense to finish, and they came through, retiring the next three Griffins batters to end the game and capture the sectional title.
Tarala praised the play of his defense and especially his pitcher for her command, which has been key to the Knights’ success all season.
“She’s a very, very smart pitcher,” he said of Grein. “She knows who she can attack and exploit with the strikeout. She knows when to pitch to contact. She’s just very, very smart.”
Both coaches also lauded each other’s program. Tarala called Lincoln-Way East’s team the “gold standard.”
Hyland said for her team to be tied late in a sectional final against the Knights was “pretty amazing,” as was the experience of just playing, something many were uncertain high school athletes would be able to do this season only a few months ago because of the pandemic.
“I think it was a great game to be a part of,” she said.
Alex Ortiz is a reporter for The Herald-News in Joliet. Originally from Romeoville, Ill., he joined The Herald-News in 2017 and mostly covers Will County government, politics, education and more. He earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master's degree from Northwestern University.