PEORIA – There was no quit in the Lincoln-Way Central softball team.
Down by three runs early to perhaps the state’s best pitcher, Abby Dunning, the Knights fought back and had the tying runs on base in the bottom of the seventh. But a couple of hard-hit balls were caught, and Marist held on for a 3-1 victory in the Class 4A state title game Thursday evening at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex.
Two of the Knights’ four losses this season were to Marist (38-1).
“You can replay things, you can say it’s a game of inches or injustices, but it’s a wonderful accomplishment,” Lincoln-Way Central coach Jeff Tarala said. “I think if you get to this point that you are a state champion no matter what.”
Through four innings, Dunning was bidding for her second no-hitter of the day after blanking Huntley, 1-0, with 13 strikeouts in the semifinals. But senior left fielder Kathryn Ponton led off the bottom of the fifth for the Knights (30-4) with an epic at-bat, as she looped the 13th offering from Dunning to left field for the team’s first hit.
While that didn’t lead to a run, it gave the Knights confidence.
“That at-bat jump-started us,” Tarala said. “She’s probably the least polished of our players but she gets it done.”
In the sixth, Lincoln-Way Central got it done with a run. Junior pitcher Lindsey Grein led off by reaching on an error. Senior center fielder Sydra Seville walked, and senior third baseman Carly Alvers knocked a full-count pitch up the middle for an RBI single to make it 3-1.
“I just wanted to do it for the whole team,” Alvers said of her RBI single. “Plus Lindsey is the best pitcher I’ve played with, and I wanted to get it done for her. We knew it would be a tough one going in, but we went all out and played our hardest.”
Alvers, who will continue to play at DePaul, was a four-year varsity player for the Knights.
“This has been the best season,” she said. “I will never forget it and never forget coach Tarala. He’s been a role model for me.”
A groundout, a hard-hit liner to left and a full-count strikeout ended the bottom of the sixth. Grein, who retired the last 11 in a row, put the RedHawks down in order in the top of the seventh. That set the stage for a tense finish.
Senior right fielder Grace Kmak led off the seventh with Lincoln-Way Central’s third and final hit, a single to left. After a deep flyout, junior second baseman Jamie Widule walked on four pitches, putting runners at first and second.
At that point, Dunning was cramping up. But after a visit to the mound, the senior right-hander, who improved to 28-1 with eight strikeouts and three walks in the game, stayed in and faced her counterpart in Grein.
In the 4-0 semifinal win over Minooka, Grein had cemented it with a two-run home run in the seventh. If she could duplicate that here, the Knights would walk off with the title. Well, Grein didn’t do that, but she hit a 3-1 pitch right on the screws. It was a low liner that looked like it could be ticketed down the third base line.
Instead, junior third baseman Kaitlyn Wright snared it near the ground for the second out.
“I can only do so much,” Grein said of the hit. “If it lands in the field, it’s different. We just came in saying we were going to do our best, and that’s what we all did. [The RedHawks] are a very talented group of girls, but so are we.
“It’s been easy to be successful when we all blend so well. It’s easy to play well when you are surrounded by good people. We will be motivated for next year.”
Seville was the next batter for Lincoln-Way Central. She also worked the count full before hitting a rope to left field. It looked like the ball might tail but it held up for sophomore left fielder Isabel Cunnea to get under and make the catch. Marist then piled on in the middle of the infield in celebration.
“I felt pretty confident,” Seville said of her at-bat. “When I hit it, I thought it was going over her head. But the wind kind of knocked it down. Still, I love this team. We always fought hard and I’m super proud of them.”
Marist scored a run in the first on an RBI single by Cunnea. The RedHawks added two more runs in the third on a perfect squeeze bunt by junior left fielder Sierra Sass and a fielders choice force out from sophomore designated player Eileen Donahue.
Grein (28-4), a right-hander, went all seven innings. She allowed seven hits, with two strikeouts, a hit batsman and no walks.
“I will remember the seven seniors,” Tarala said of Alvers, Kristina Chronos, Grace Erickson, Kmak, Ponton, Seville, and Isabella Wilkerson. “My father-in-law, Glenn Bouck, is the best guy I know. He talks about the concept of joy, and we experienced that. We knew we had a special group this season. They had last year taken from them, but we said from the start, let’s go out and enjoy this season, and we did.”