After Triad senior Kari Sarhage’s second home run of the game pulled the Knights even at 2-2 in the top of the sixth inning, Highland was hoping for a hero late.
The Bulldogs’ hopes were answered in the bottom of the frame when the Nos. 7 and 8 hitters in their lineup took on the starring roles. Junior Hannah Sullens smoked a two-out RBI double to right field and senior Reily Kassay followed with a run-scoring single to left to propel Highland to a 4-2 victory and the title of the Class 3A regional it hosted on Thursday.
“That was a big rip there,” Highland coach Greg Exton said of Sullens’ triple. “I am happy for anybody who does well for our team, but sometimes it’s even neater to see a kid down in the bottom part of the lineup get a big hit, because they don’t get as many opportunities to do things like that. So, it’s great to see those kids get their chance of a little glory, too.”
Sullens, who used good adept base running to get to third on the play, said she thought Sarhage’s offering would be an outside or away pitch, but instead it right down the middle in her sweet spot.
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“I just wanted to put a good swing on it, and I got it pretty good. It felt so good to step up there, and I was thinking so much about (junior catcher) Lauren (Baer), because I care so much about her, and I hope she is going to be okay,” said Sullens, who was overcome with emotion while speaking about her classmate and teammate.
As if playing for a regional championship was not emotional enough already, Highland’s team had to deal with Baer being rushed to SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis on Thursday after waking up with severe pain in her abdomen.
But the Bulldogs are used to dealing with adversity. Coach Exton had a tumor removed from his brain in February and has fought through radiation and chemotherapy treatments without missing a single game.
“These bad breaks kind of mess with our heads a little bit. But, we use it as motivation. For (Baer), we were not going to lose this game.”
Highland senior ace Aubrey Hacke could not have agreed any more.
“The things that happen to us, it just makes us stronger and more determined,” she said.
Kassay said big-game pressure does not usually bother her too much.
“I am usually at my best when the pressure is the highest,” said Kassay, who is a Missouri Baptist University recruit. “After Hannah came through with that big hit in the gap, I wanted to keep it going. It felt so good to come through in a big spot like that and help our team win another regional championship.”
Hacke then went out and struck out the side in the top of the seventh to close it out and capture the program’s fourth consecutive regional championship. The University of Nebraska Omaha recruit has played a hand in all four titles.
“That gave me extra fuel, extra fire,” Hacke said of Sullens and Kassay coming through in the clutch to reclaim the lead. “Honestly, I have been so blessed to have a regional championship every year of my high school career. It’s the greatest thing ever. I have done it with so many different teams, so many different age groups and it’s been great.”
Three days after striking out 19 in an 8-2 semifinal win over Civic Memorial, Hacke punched out 14 to hike her season record to 17-1. In addition to the seventh, Hacke also struck out the side in the second and fifth innings.
Hacke knocked in the game’s first run in the home half of the first. Junior leadoff hitter Addison Rinderer drew a leadoff walk, moved to second on junior Kourtney Zobrist’s sacrifice, and scored on Hacke’s RBI single the opposite way to left.
Freshman Autumn Walters, Baer’s replacement behind the plate, did a yeoman’s job catching Hacke for the first time in her life. Walters, who was the No. 9 hitter in the lineup, also came through with a leadoff double in the third and scored the game’s second run on Zobrist’s ensuing fielder’s choice.
“I asked her if she was nervous at all and she said, ‘No,’ ” Exton said of Walters. “A lot of freshmen would be nervous as heck even if it was just coming to the varsity to start the season, let alone to start her first game of a regional championship. But she played great and did a great job.”`
Sarhage crushed a one-out solo home run to left in the fourth and then tied the game with another solo blast, this time to dead center. She finished her career hitting five homers in her last nine at-bats.
Another nice feather in the cap for Highland was shattering the school record for wins in a single season at 29, which eclipsed the 28 established by the 2010 squad.
“It seems like something we’ve been doing all year, tying and breaking records,” Hacke said. “Hopefully, we’ll keep pushing and get further in the postseason and get our 30 wins. That is one of our big goals this season.”
Highland advances to the Columbia Sectional, where the Bulldogs will face Herrin at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in the second semifinal. Herrin beat Waterloo 7-5 on a walk-off grand slam.
Highland 8 Civic Memorial 2
Hacke overpowerd the Civic Memorial Eagles with a career-high 19 strikeouts in an 8-2 victory in a semifinal of the Class 3A Highland Regional Tuesday at Highland High School.
The Bulldogs (28-3) rallied for six runs — all with two outs — on seven hits in the fifth inning to overcome a slow start offensively, and advance to the championship game of their own regional.
“I told them that you all have heard the old saying that hitting is contagious and it is true,” Highland coach Greg Exton said. “If two or three kids get a hit, the next thing you know everybody feels good about themselves again and then they start hacking the ball all over the place.
“We hit the ball good once we got going, it just took a while to get started.”
Hacke recorded all but two of Eagles’ outs via the strikeout, 13 of them the swing-and-miss variety.
“I have never had 19 strikeouts before; I think my highest for school ball was 15 and that was in the eighth grade regional championship,” Hacke said.
After giving out a two-out free pass in the first inning, the hard-throwing lefty punched out the next seven batters in a row to strike out the side in the first three innings. Hacke also fanned the side in the fifth and seventh.
“The first couple of innings I struggled finding my release point because I hadn’t thrown in a while,” Hacke said. “So when you’re really loose, you snap it hard but you’re not in your groove. After a while, I settled down and I threw harder and better as the game went on; usually that’s my thing.”
Highland outhit the Eagles 14-4 but the game remained scoreless through four innings.
The Bulldogs finally broke through on Addison Rinderer’s two-out RBI single in the fifth. Zobrist then singled, Hacke helped herself with a two-run double to right, Lily Garbett hit a run-scoring single to center, Baer crushed a RBI double to center, and Peyton Holzinger lined a RBI double to left.
Civic Memorial got its only two runs on three hits in the sixth, with junior Susan Buchanan providing the big blow with a two-run triple to right.
However, the Bulldogs answered right back in full in the bottom half as Zobrist sliced a two-run single to right to plate Sullens (single) and Kassay (single). Zobrist finished with a game-high three hits.
Highland 10 Effingham 2
On Monday, May 22, the Bulldogs hammered out 20 hits — eight of which went for extra bases — and never trailed in the contest en route to dousing the host Effingham Flaming Hearts to end the regular season.
Highland opened the scoring with a single tally in the second before racking up four in the third inning, two in each of the fourth and fifth frames, and then finishing with a single run in the sixth.
The Flaming Hearts, who totaled six hits, scored both of their runs in the fourth.
Baer continued her assault on pitchers of late after going a perfect 4-for-4 with a home run, two doubles and three runs batted in. She doubled in the second which led to the Bulldogs’ first run. Next, Baer walloped a two-run homer to center in the third before finishing with a double in the fifth that led to an 8-2 HHS lead.
“Personally, I had been in a hitting slump,” Baer said. “I was over swinging and getting under the ball but after extra reps and extra hitting times with my hitting coach (Brett Swip, who is also Collinsville’s head softball coach), I finally leveled out my swing again and starting swinging at the first good pitch I got. I had been swinging late in the count which is normally when the pitchers throw their best pitches.”
Miener, Zobrist, Rinderer and Holzinger each collected two hits.
Miener knocked in a pair of runs. She socked a leadoff home run the opposite way to right in the fourth, and later pulled a run-scoring single to left in the fifth.
Both of Zobrist’s hits were doubles and she also supplied one RBI and one run.
Contributing one hit and one RBI each were Hacke (double, two runs) Garbett (one run) and Sullens.
Junior right-hander Kirsten Plocher was able to get back in the win column after dropping her last two starts. Plocher (10-2) went the distance and gave up just two earned runs on six hits and three walks while fanning nine.