Belleville East softball coach Natalie Peters has been working her team out on artificial turf as preparation for Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin and the plastic pasture it calls home.
But the only thing that could have protected the Cyclones from the Lancers’ offense — in particular, Alex Boze — was pushing the fences back an extra 30 feet.
East’s senior catcher pounded a two-run home run in the third inning and a three-run no-doubter in the fourth to lead the Lancers to a 9-6 win over SH-G and the championship of their Class 4A Regional.
“It wasn’t just because of the two home runs,” said Boze. “We did so much right in this game to win it. Everyone contributed, even those who were on the bench.”
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The title victory sets up an intracity showdown with Belleville West in the Normal West sectional semifinals. That game will be played Tuesday in Collinsville at 4:30 p.m. West (17-13) has built a head of steam with a pair of dramatic come-from-behind, seventh-inning wins to capture the O’Fallon Regional championship.
“West has a lot of momentum and is a great team,” Peters said. “We can only go back and prepare and come back hoping to execute our game like we did today.”
East improves to 27-6 on the season. Sacred Heart-Griffin’s season ends at 26-7.
The Lancers, who used the week to practice in the school’s football stadium and at GCS Ballpark in Sauget to acclimate to SH-G’s Field Turf, allowed the Cyclones an unearned run in the third inning.
More notable, however, are the runs the East defense prevented until its hitters could figure out Cyclone pitcher Bailey Morrow.
Senior outfielder Amanda Dermody gunned down a runner at the plate from deep center in the first and, in the fourth, robbed Cyclone No. 3 hitter Renee Abernathy of a three-run home run with a backhanded catch that carried her over the temporary fence. She also had three hits and an RBI.
Third baseman Jessica Belzer killed a rally in the fifth by starting a double play. Kendall Patton did the same with the tying run at the plate in the seventh.
“Belzer got that double play, and that was the clutchest thing I’ve ever seen,” Boze said. “Dermody is always efficient in the outfield. You know when it goes her way she’s going to get it.”
That calling-card defense protected starting pitcher Kristina Bettis, who allowed five earned runs and eight hits to a speedy SH-G team that plays to its advantage on the artificial surface with slap hits, drag bunts and stolen bases.
“It’s a totally different play off turf, not just on the infield, but with the bounces in the outfield. It was good for us to be able to prepare for it,” Peters said. “We just told the girls they had to stay confident and composed and be focused on every out. They executed really well today.”
The Cyclones held a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the third inning when Belzer reached on an error and scored on Boze’s first home run, a line drive well behind the barrier in left field.
SH-G, which finished third at the IHSA Class 3A state tournament last season, responded with a run in the fourth off the would-be home run by Abernathy which, thanks to Dermody’s catch, instead was scored a sacrifice fly.
East batted through the order with a six-run fourth, however. Jasmine Poore picked up an RBI with nobody out, then Belzer lined one off the first baseman’s foot to plate two runs and give the Lancers their first lead of the game, 6-5.
Jackie Belzer reached on a single up the middle to set up Boze for a three-run blast that put East in command and brought an end to Morrow’s day in the pitcher’s circle for the Cyclones.
“It took us an inning or two to figure (Morrow) out,” Boze said, “but after that first hit we just went off on her.”
SH-G scored a run in the fifth and put the tying run at the plate before Belzer’s double play ended the threat.
Morrow and SH-G reliever Rebecca Sauer allowed 11 East hits without a walk or a strikeout.