A year removed from a 28-win regional championship season, Belleville East softball coach Natalie Peters would not certify any expectations for her team in 2015.
The Lancers, after all, had lost nine seniors to graduation — including their all-area pitcher Alison Mitts — and had just three returning upperclassmen.
But the young Lancers put off the right vibes from the very start, Peters said, and ended up capturing a second straight 4A regional championship.
Sophomore Jessica Belzer clinched it Saturday with a two-run, two-out walk-off hit to lift East to a 4-3 win over Belleville West.
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"I think from a coaching perspective, we saw this team's work ethic and we were excited about it," said Peters, as her player celebrated in a post-game downpour. "If you're young and inexperienced, it just means you're going to grow. We knew it would be a growing process and we knew how hard these girls worked."
Belleville West made a serious push to unseat the top-seeded Lancers with three two-out runs in the seventh inning to take a 3-2 lead.
But if there was any doubt about the game's eventual outcome, it didn't show in the Belleville East dugout. The Lancers showed only the same grit that brought them from a 1-6 start to their season to a 23-3 finish.
Giving up, said junior pitcher Angela Vanderpluym, "is not what Belleville East is. The Lancers just fight and fight and fight."
And, for the second time in this regional, Belzer was the hero.
Her two-out gap-shot scored Brooke Laidley and Becca Dahm and sends East to an all-Southwestern Conference sectional showdown against either Edwardsville or Alton, who play Monday for the area's other 4A regional title.
"You just relax your nerves and go up and hit the ball, that's what I was thinking," said a matter-of-fact Belzer. "It's just coach Peters, in each of these situations she just says 'deep breath, deep breath.' That's what I did."
Vanderpluym provided gritty moments for the Lancers, too.
East senior Tawnee Kramer broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the third with an RBI single that scored teammate Quiozha Alexander. West promptly responded by putting its first two batters on base in the top of the fourth.
But Vanderpluym ended the threat by retiring the Maroons' No. 4,5, and 6 hitters in order.
"In that situation she was mentally tough enough to not change what she was doing," Peter said. "She's not afraid to attack batters and trust her defense. Getting us out of that inning was huge."
Even from opening day, West head coach Casey Garrett referred to the Maroons' season as a "roller coaster," an up-and-down ride through a tough conference schedule that, at times, challenged the team's focus.
The Maroons actually proved themselves to be pretty resilient. They never won more than five straight at any point in the season, but lost as many as three in a row only once.
But West got a whole season's worth of ups and downs Saturday.
Down: West committed four errors in the game, two of which factored into a fifth inning run scored by Dahm that gave East a 2-0 lead.
Up: The Maroons were down to their last strike when pinch hitter Daisha Price singled home McKenzie Sisk. Then Alliyah St. John tripled to tie the game and later scored on a bloop singly by Kiri Evans.
Down again: Belzer's game winning hit ended their season.
Still, the Maroons finished with a 22-15 record, their first 20-win season since 2008.
"At the beginning of the season, I had no idea where we would end up," Garrett said. "This is the first time since I don't know when that we've had 20 wins. That's a big deal.
"We made a few crucial errors today that pretty much killed us — we could have won this game the way things were going. The girls have big hearts though and they never quit."
Game at a Glance
Belleville East sophomore Jessica Belzer laced a two-out, two-run, walk-off hit to secure the Lancers’ 4-3 win over Belleville West and the Class 4A regional softball championship.
Down 2-0, the Maroons scored three in the top of the seventh —all with two out — to take their only lead of the game. But Brooke Laidley singled and Becca Dahm walked with one out in the Lancer half to set up Belzer’s game winner.
The Lancers will face the winner of the Alton Regional, which will be decided between Edwardsville and Alton Monday at 4:30 p.m. The all-Southwestern Conference sectional showdown currently is scheduled to be played at Collinsville’s Jaycee Sports Complex, Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.
PITCHING: For East, junior Angela Vanderpluym allowed eight hits — four in the Maroons’ comeback seventh — while striking out one and walking two. West sophomore pitcher Isabella Holtrop allowed five Lancer hits, struck out two and walked one, but was victimized by four Maroon errors.
LANCER THIRD: Quiozha Alexander singled to lead off, advanced to second on a ground out and stole third. Tawnee Kramer broke the scoreless tie with a single into center. Holtrop got out of trouble with an inning-ending double play started by West third baseman Morgan Hinkle. EAST 1, WEST 0
LANCER FIFTH: Becca Dahm reached on a two-base throwing error with one out. She scored all the way from second when the West defense mishandled a sacrfice bunt by Alexander. Holtrop escaped more trouble, again, when Belzer lined out to West shortstop Hannah Biermann, who then doubled Alexander off of first. EAST 2, WEST 0
MAROON SEVENTH: Designated player McKenzie Sisk got a one out single and was advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Megan Glaeser. Junior Daisha Price, pinch hitting with two out as the tying run, singled to right to score Sisk. Alliyah St. John roped a triple to score Price tie the game, then scored on a wild pitch to put West on top. WEST 3, EAST 2
LANCER SEVENTH: With one out Brooke Laidley singled, follow by a walk to Becca Dahm. Both runners advanced on a wild pitch and scored on Belzer’s game winner. EAST 4, WEST 3
RECORDS: Belleville East 24-9, Belleville West 22-14.