EAST PEORIA — They may be the defending Class 2A state champions, but the Nashville Hornettes will go into their state semifinal contest against the No 1-ranked and unbeaten Kankakee Bishop McNamara Fightin' Irish as the underdogs.
The Hornettes (36-4) will play the Fightin' Irish (33-0) at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the EastSide Centre in East Peoria.
The winner will play for the state championship at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, while the loser will play for third place at 3 p.m. Saturday.
"Undefeated teams really don't scare us," Nashville junior Hannah Yung said. "We defeated Massac County, and they were undefeated. We just have to have a good attitude and go up and be focused when we play."
The Hornettes also were in the underdog role against the previously unbeaten Massac County Patriots in the championship game of the Du Quoin Sectional.
The Hornettes posted a convincing 5-2 victory over the Patriots.
"It's just the way it works out," Nashville coach Dempsey Witte said of playing two unbeatens in a span of six days. "I think a lot of people had us losing to Massac (County), and I think we're the underdogs here to Kankakee. We'll just have to try and play our best softball and see what happens."
The Hornettes also weren't expected to get past unbeaten St. Joseph-Ogden last year in the state semifinals, but they came away with a 5-2 victory.
"We're in the same boat in that a lot of people expected us to lose the first game, if not get embarrassed in the first game," Witte said. "A lot of people had St. Joe picked to beat us pretty bad. Fortunately, we were able to score against them in the first inning and the second inning, and put a little pressure on them.
"I don't think St. Joe had been behind much all year, let alone three or four runs right away. The great start really helped us out in that first game."
Bishop McNamara has outscored its five postseason opponents 66-2.
The Fightin' Irish have scored in double digits in 18 of their 33 games this season.
The top hitter for the Fightin' Irish is senior shortstop Alee Rashenskas, who has a .616 batting average with 19 doubles and seven homers.
Rashenskas has been accepted to the West Point Military Academy.
Bishop McNamara senior pitcher Jaelen Hull has a 26-0 record with an 0.60 ERA. She's struck out 202 batters and walked only 17 in 151 innings of work.
She is headed to Bradley University on a softball scholarship.
"I know they have a great left-handed pitcher in Jaelen Hull," Witte said. "It's going to be tough to score runs, but at the same time, we feel that we've seen a lot of great pitchers down here in the south. It's been tough to score runs in a lot of our games lately."
The Fightin' Irish are making their first appearance in the state tournament, while the Hornettes shouldn't be awestruck by the experience since they have their entire starting lineup back from the state tournament last year.
"I think we're almost in a sense the veterans up there," Nashville senior Shaye Harre said. "We know what to expect and we know not to let the nerves get the best of us. Just relax and play ball because it's just another softball game."
The Hornettes have shown the ability to score with both the long ball or the short game.
They've clubbed 48 homers as a team this season, and they've got good speed at the top of their lineup with Nicole Deering, who has scored 62 runs, and Kiley Pelker, who has scored 57 times.
"This is probably one of the better years in school history for us offensively," Witte said. "We have hit the ball pretty well. We have a lot of power numbers, we've had quite a few home runs, but more so we have a lot of people who haven't struck out very much. We have some contact hitters, too.
"I think we can play a couple of different styles of softball with the smallball moving people over and we have a few girls who can hit the ball out. It gives people a lot to prepare for."
No. 3 hitter Shaye Harre is hitting .622 with 21 doubles, 14 homers and 64 RBIs.
Opposing teams have been reluctant to pitch to Harre, who has tied the state record for walks in a season with 50.
"If I do get a pitch to hit, I have to be ready, but I also have to be disciplined and make sure I don't hit anything that is out of the zone," Harrre said.
Briah Winchester and Yung have made teams pay for walking Harre.
Winchester is hitting .471 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs, while Yung is hitting .380 with five homers and 41 RBIs.
Winchester had a two-run single and Yung had a solo homer in the Hornettes 3-0 win over Teutopolis in the super-sectional.
"She has been great all year," Harre said of Winchester. "Her and Hannah have been backing me up all year. Hannah is on a hot streak right now and I think Briah just began a hot streak."
Nashville sophomore pitcher Maci Ingram threw a no-hitter against Teutopolis.
Ingram has a 26-3 record with an 0.76 ERA. She's struck out 311 batters and walked only 13 batter in 174 innings of work.
"When Maci is pitching, sometimes you can't tell if we're up by five runs or down by five runs," Witte said. "She has that composure. She doesn't get rattled very easily. She concentrates on each pitch and does a great job for us."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.