CENTRALIA — On the mound and at the plate, Columbia senior Brianna Weilbacher proved to be a force the Highland Lady Bulldogs couldn't contain Thursday at the Class 3A Centralia Softball Sectional.
Maintaining her poise throughout, Weilbacher scattered five hits in a complete-game effort which featured 13 strikeouts, and aided her own cause with a solo homer as the Eagles held off Highland for a 3-1 semifinal win at Kaskaskia College.
Taking advantage of the inexperience of Highland freshman pitcher Aubrey Hacke, the Eagles scored twice in the first inning on a sacrifice fly by Tayrn Pena and Weilbacher's home run to take a 2-0 lead.
Caitlyn Touchette added a solo homer in the fourth inning, increasing the lead to 3-0, before Highland (20-11) got within 3-1 on an RBI double to the gap in left-center field by junior Mallory Rutz in the fifth that drove home senior Sydney Lammers, who reached base on a single.
But Weilbacher never blinked.
Continuing to blanket the outside edge of the plate, the Eagles ace pitched around a pair of Bulldogs' hits in the sixth, then struck out the side in the seventh inning to clinch the win.
"Once we figured out the pitch on the outside corner was getting the call, we just tried to hit spots. My screwball was working and once we were able to get ahead in the count, I went with the pitch I didn't think they would be able to hit, which was my rise ball,'' Weilbacher said. "I just made sure I hit my spots and the defense made the plays.
"They always make the plays behind me.''
The win moves Columbia (33-2) into the sectional title game at 11 a.m. Saturday against Centralia at Kaskaskia College. The Annies defeated Carbondale 16-10 in the other semifinal played Tuesday.
For Columbia coach Rhonda Major, the sectional semifinal win was like so many others this season, as good pitching, timely hitting and good defense helped produce a victory.
"We just need to continue to do what we've done all year. This team has a great job of playing as a team,'' Major said. "It's a very special group, which has great team chemistry, and they just keep battling and fighting.
"I wouldn't say Brianna (Weilbacher) struggled early today. She hit her spots and once she got in a groove, she mixed her pitches well. I'm very proud of how she pitched today.''
The loss not only ended the season for Highland (20-11), but also marked the end of the 16-year head coaching career of Sharon Schmitz, who is stepping down to spend time with her grandchildren. Schmitz has spent the last nine years at the helm of the Highland Lady Bulldogs, where she coached the program to 170 wins and two of its three regional titles. Schmitz, who also coached at Highland Middle School, also directed HHS to a regional title in 2009 and five 20-plus-win seasons, including a program-best 28 victories in 2010.
The game got off to a tough start for Hacke, who four hitters into the game trailed 2-0.
But after Weibacher's homer made it 2-0, the Eagles managed just one run and six hits over the final 5 1/3 innings off Hacke, who entered the game with a perfect record of 7-0 and a low ERA of 1.13.
"For a freshman, she (Hacke) pitched well. She did a good job,'' Schmitz said.
Rutz finished with two hits to lead Highland. She was hit by pitch to open the game and also had a single in the third. Joining Lammers with one hit each were seniors Alyssa Voegele and Brooke Hug, who both singled in the sixth. In addition, senior Kayleigh Hester drew a walk in the second.
"We had some chances and we had a (courtesy) runner get picked off in the sixth inning which really hurt," Schmitz said. "But we gave it everything we had. I was proud of the effort all year and to win a regional is a nice way to go out."
Hacke, a left-hander, got a couple of pitches up in the first inning and the Eagles hitters took advantage.
Kaylee Bastien doubled to lead off and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Kalli Farmer.
Pena then lofted a fly ball to deep right, which was caught by Kayleigh Hester, but Bastien easily scored for a 1-0 lead.
Three pitches later it was 2-0 Columbia, Weilbacher hitting her home run over the scoreboard in left.
"I was looking outside and it came inside,'' Weilbacher said, smiling. "It was a screwball and I hit it good.''
Touchette made it 3-0 with her one-out solo shot in the fourth.