EAST PEORIA — Two first-inning homers were enough for the Bishop McNamara Fightin' Irish to knock off the defending the Class 2A state champion Nashville Hornettes.
Alee Rashenskas and Jenna Stauffenberg both homered during a three-run, first-inning rally and the Fightin' Irish survived a last-inning Nashville comeback bid to edge the Hornettes 3-2 Friday in the semifinal round of the Class 2A State Softball Tournament.
"This one hurts bad,'' Nashville coach Dempsey Witte said. "I'm just going to be honest. This is one of the most gut-wrenching losses I have been a part of since I have been coaching. I loved our fight. I loved our attitude. I just really felt like were going to come back and win. We took great at-bats and made great adjustments. We have a great group of girls and I am so proud to their coach.''
In addition to the homer, Rashenskas made two stellar defensive plays at shortstop.
She dove up the middle to grab a grounder by Nashville's Nicole Deering and then flipped the ball to second baseman for a force out in the sixth inning.
She robbed Deering again in the seventh, backhanking a hard grounder deep in the hole and making a strong throw to first base for the final out of the game.
"You have to tip your hat,'' Witte said. "Those are two of the better defensive plays I've seen since I have been a coach. If that gets through, it could be a different game. We've played a lot of good teams, and most shortstops would not make both of them.''
Had Rashenskas;' throw not beat Deering, the tying run and maybe even the winning run would have scored.
"She's a great shortstop,'' Bishop McNamara coach Laura Harms said. "She's going to West Point (Military Academy) to play for a reason. Defense is her game. I've seen that a million times. I know not everybody else has seen that, but we practice that. We practice diving plays. I'm a defensive person, so I think that was good.''
The Hornettes (36-5) will play the Peru St. Bede Bruins (18-5) at 3 p.m. Saturday in the third-place game. Tremont beat St. Bede 6-3 in the other semifinal game on Friday.
"We obviously fell short of our goal,'' Witte said. "It's a pretty high standard when your goal is to win the state and nothing else. This one hurts pretty bad. We have to go back and find that energy and find that fight and compete in the third-place game. I don't expect anything less from this group. I expect us to attack that game as hard as any (game).''
The Fightin' Irish (34-0) will be playing for their first state championship in softball when they square off against the Tremont Turks (27-0) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
The Fighin' Irish knocked the Hornettes back on their heels right away.
Bishop McNarama left-hander Jaelen Hull struck out the side in the top of the first inning, including getting a called third strike against Shaye Harre on a changeup after running up a 3-2 count.
It was Harre's first strikeout this season.
Harre was again called out on strikes in the third inning on a pitch off the outside corner of the plate.
"She probably hasn't seen a pitcher like Jaelen who is going to throw that changeup in an awesome situation,'' Harms said. "I know she's a great hitter, but I think Jaelen did a great job with her. We attacked her like we attacked some of the hitters in our (Chicago) Catholic Conference. We knew what kind of hitter she was, and we knew what we had to do.''
Rashenskas sent a 1-1 offering from Nashville sophomore pitcher Maci Ingram over the fence in left-center field to lead off the bottom of the first inning.
After Meghan Gill reached on a hit off a grounder past the third baseman, Stauffenberg sent a 2-2 offering from Ingram over the fence in straight-away center field.
"You have to credit Rashenskas, she put a good swing on it and hit it out,'' Witte said. "She's an unbelievable player. Then the second homer, that was about two inches above the plate. The girl went down and golfed it. It was a great pitch. It was right where we wanted it.''
The game was delayed for 2 1/2 hours due to lightning and rain in the top of the third inning.
"I was glad for the rain, I was glad for the break,'' Witte said. "We regrouped. We have a lot of fight and we knew we would come back and battle. We just wanted to give ourselves a chance.''
Ingram dominated after the delay. She retired all 15 Fightin' Irish batters she faced after play resumed, finishing with 12 strikeouts.
"That killed our momentum,'' Rashenskas said of the rain delay. "We were pretty confident coming into the game, pretty excited and ready to play. Their pitcher came back a lot stronger. We had a hard time adjusting to her riseball and her screwball. I guess we held on just enough.''
In the seventh, Hannah Yung and Nellie Snead hit back-to-back doubles to get Hornettes on the scoreboard.
Abbi Liske followed with a single to center field and Emily Thompson drew a walk after running up a 3-2 count to load the bases.
Jordi Harre hit a sacrifice fly to center field. Snead managed to slide under the catcher's tag at the plate.
Rashenskas then turned in her defensive gem on Deering's grounder to dash the Hornettes' dream of back-to-back titles.
"We feel like any part of our lineup can get something going, and in that case, we did it with the middle to the bottom part of our lineup,'' said Witte, whose team outhit the Fightin' Irish 6-4. "We put pressure on, and they made big-time plays with speed on the bases.''
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.