Freeburg’s Jenny Homann’s walk-off home run to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning broke up a pitching duel between Freeburg’s Miranda Schulte and Highland’s Aubrey Hacke and gave the Midgets a 1-0 win over the Bulldogs in the championship of the Class 3A Herrin Sectional.
Homann’s blast was historic as it gave Freeburg its first Super-Sectional berth since 1985.
“It was unbelievable,” said Freeburg coach Ben Howes. “We caught some breaks, they had some chances to score, but didn’t do it and it came to back to get them. Their lefty was as a good a pitcher we’ve faced all year. It was a great game and a shame somebody had to lose.
“I didn’t realize it’s been 31 years since we’ve been to the super-sectional that’s pretty awesome,” Howes said. “My assistant coach Sandy (Kunz) Busch was 27-0 that year and pitched that team to our only state championship.”
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Despite Highland having the better scoring chances prior to the game-ending drive, Freeburg sophomore right-hander Miranda Schulte and her defense held the Bulldogs scoreless the whole way. Schulte went the distance for Freeburg, scattering four hits with seven strikeouts and three walks, stranding runners at third in the last three innings.
“Those last three innings were a little stressful, but I knew with my defense I could get out of it,” Schulte said.
Homann hit a 3-2 pitch for her first walk-off home run of her career and seventh of the season.
“I was just thinking get a base hit because we had a strong 2-3-4 and could back me up if I got on,” Homann said. “She was doing a great job all game keeping us off balance with the high pitches and that one was kind of high right down the middle. I just got a hold of it. We have eight seniors and we wanted to win this game really bad.”
Before the senior’s heroics at the plate, Homann made back-to-back defensive plays in the top of the sixth to keep the game scoreless.
With a runner at second and one out, Hacke hit a ground ball ticketed for center field, but Homann got to the ball and while she couldn’t make a throw, she kept the lead runner — HHS senior Lauren Wright — from rounding third and heading home.
Lily Garbett then popped up an 0-1 pitch that the left fielder was too deep to get to, but Homann made an over-the-shoulder catch and got the ball back in to force the runners to hold. Schulte then got Peyton Holzinger on a come-backer.
“The catch Jenny made over her shoulder may have been the greatest play I’ve seen all my life,” Howes said. “The last few games we’ve played better defense and today may have been the first game we didn’t make an error.”
Schulte was never bigger in dancing out of danger than in the seventh. After walking Hannah Miener to lead off the inning, pinch-hitter Kourtney Zobrist laid down such a good sacrifice bunt that turned into a single. Then after Jill Garbett sacrificed Miener and Zobrist up a base, with Miener representing the go-ahead run just 60 feet away and Zobrist also in scoring position as an insurance tally. But Schulte battled out of it by retiring pinch-hitter Hannah Sullens on a pop fly to third and Wright on a ground out to Homann at short to end the threat.
That set the stage for Homann’s walk-off winning wallop.
Hacke handcuffed Freeburg over the first six innings, allowing just two base runners. After she retired the first 10 batters Homann got Freeburg’s first hit on a line drive to right. However, she was stranded at first when Hacke struck out both Schulte and Josie Ledbetter on called third strikes.
Cheyenne Bivins led off the fifth inning with a single to right, but was erased on the next pitch trying to steal second. Hacke had retired five straight when she faced Homann. The junior left-hander finished with eight strikeouts and did not issue a single free pass.
“It was all about pitching today,” said Highland coach Greg Exton, whose team finished 25-9 in his first year at the helm. “We had some runners on, but their pitcher was able to get out of those jams. I told our players to not hang their heads because they played a good ballgame, but faced a team that also played a good game.”
Highland broke up Schulte’s bid for a no-hitter when Peyton Holzinger led off the fifth with a single down the right field line. She advanced to second on a bunt and to third on a wild pitch before Schulte walked Jillian Garbett. Schulte got out of the jam by striking out Jenna Gnaedinger on a called third strike.
The Midgets ultimately fell in defeat to Sacred-Heart Griffin on Monday at the Mattoon Super-Sectional.
Wright, Highland’s lone senior, said although it was upsetting to lose in the sectional final,she could not have been prouder to be a part of this team.
“I enjoyed playing with many of these girls for the past two years, and some for the past six years,” she said. “Everyone worked hard and did their part. I am confident that the team will do great things next year.”
Wright leaves Highland after leading the program to an unprecedented level of success. She is the only Bulldogs softball player in history to be a part of three regional championship teams, including the program’s first ever sectional crown a year ago. This season, the St. Louis College of Pharmacy recruit also helped the Bulldogs score their first Mississippi Valley Conference title in five years and just the second one since 1999.
“It has been amazing to be a part of three different teams that each brought back regional titles, a sectional title and finally an MVC championship,” Wright said. “My time as a Highland Bulldog has been full of memorable experiences and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. Even though it has been a great run with HHS Softball, I am excited to see what the future holds for me at the collegiate level. I am extremely happy softball will still be a big part of my life.”
Highland 4, Herrin 0
In Thursday’s sectional semifinal, Highland sophomore right-hander Kirsten Plocher continued her postseason domination of opposing lineups after spinning her second straight shutout after blanking Herrin 4-0 Thursday in a semifinal of the Class 3A Herrin Sectional, held at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Herrin came in on an offensive tear after piling up 21 runs in its first two playoff games, but Plocher forced the Tigers to lay goose eggs for all seven innings after silencing on just four hits and two walks while punching out seven.
“I really felt like I was on today with all of my pitches,” said Plocher, who threw 14 straight shutout innings in the playoffs to catapult her season record to 12-2 while lowering her ERA to 2.23. “I tried to keep my velocity up and get ahead in the count when I could to make it easier on myself and my defense. They did a great job helping me shut down a very good hitting team, making great plays all the way through the game. I felt like it was an all-around great game for us and I’m so happy to be a part of this team. I can’t wait for us to go further this postseason.”
Plocher also helped herself at the plate as she drove in a game-high two runs, and junior third baseman Reily Kassay collected a game-best three hits, which also included the lone extra-base hit in the game.
In addition, Wright and Hacke each knocked in one and Lauren Baer scored a pair of runs.
The Bulldogs scored the only two runs they would need in the second inning when Plocher slapped a two-run single with two outs to chase home both Miener (walk) and Baer (single).
The Bulldogs tacked on an insurance tally in each of the fifth and sixth innings to complete the scoring.
In the fifth, Kassay sliced a one-out triple the opposite way to right and then promptly tagged and scored on Hacke’s sacrifice fly.
In the sixth, Wright smacked an RBI single to center to plate Baer for the final run.
Herrin’s Calli Sutcliffe was pinned with the loss after allowing four runs (three earned) on eight hits, two walks with no strikeouts.