The Highland Bulldogs checked off the majority of a long list of goals for the softball season, which started off with a run of 22 wins without a loss.
But the Bulldogs’ 5-2 loss to Herrin in the semifinals of the IHSA Class 3A Columbia Sectional on Wednesday, May 31 at Eagleview Elementary School left them just shy of two notable milestones from their list — namely, their 30th win and the program’s first ever state tournament berth.
Whatever disappointment the players feel today, says head coach Greg Exton, will fade away to the pride in their other achievements.
“We won the Triad Tournament, we won 29 games, we won the conference and a regional championship,” said Exton, whose team also shattered the school record for wins in a single season. “I told them don’t hang your heads too low for too long. We had a heck of a year and it was a good ride.”
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Herrin (32-4) advanced to the sectional final against the Columbia Eagles (28-4). Highland’s season is over at 29-4.
Three of Herrin’s runs were unearned, as were both of Highland’s, overshadowing what was an otherwise spirited pitcher’s duel between Bulldogs senior Aubrey Hacke and the Tigers’ Calli Sutcliffe.
Hacke, a University of Nebraska Omaha pledge, allowed five Herrin hits and walked four, but struck out 11. Highland got six hits and one walk off Sutcliffe while striking out four times.
Highland had an uncharacteristic four fielding errors that led to the three unearned runs for Herrin. The Bulldogs put at least one runner on base in six of the seven innings, but base-running miscues and lack of timely hitting helped doom Highland’s hopes. The Bulldogs left seven runneers stranded on base.
Hacke, who finished her season with an impressive 17-2 record and a 1.33 ERA, offered no excuses for the loss.
“We weren’t solid all the way around,” Hacke said. “I probably wasn’t my best, the defense was not its best, and we didn’t hit the ball.”
Highland senior first baseman Hannah Miener and Herrin second baseman Lexi Childers shared game-high honors with two hits apiece.
Miener socked two doubles and achieved the lone RBI for the Bulldogs. The Danville College recruit led the Bulldogs with a .436 batting average and 35 runs scored while she also ranked second in all of the following stats: RBIs (28), home runs (seven) and doubles (10).
Childers reached base all four times on one triple, one double and two walks, while she also drew two walks.
For Sutcliffe, the win was retribution for the Bulldogs knocking her team out in the sectional semifinal last season.
“We wanted the win because we wanted revenge on them. That got us going,” she said. “They ruined our season last year and we were waiting for this time to come around again.”
A couple clutch hits and a heads-up play by the Herrin catcher made the difference in the game.
Highland took the lead in the top of the second inning on an RBI double the opposite way to right field by Meiner.
Herrin responded with two runs in the third to claim the lead for good. Childers led off with a triple to center and scored two batters later on an RBI double by Makayla Smothers to knot the score. Sutcliffe then put herself in position for the win with a two-out single to right.
Highland’s Reily Kassay, a Missouri Baptist recruit, basically stole a run in the fifth when she led off with a single and then scored with the help of the Herrin defense committing an error and not paying enough attention to her racing around the bases.
The Bulldogs threatened again in the sixth when Hannah Sullens reached base as the tying run with one out. A sharp ground ball by Kassay was fielded by the shortstop who stepped on second base for the unassisted out, but over-threw first in an attempt to get the double play.
Kassay tried to advance to second, but was caught in a run down by Herrin catcher Beth Meadows, who backed up the throw to first.
“To me the key play was our catcher running down that overthrow to get that girl at second,” said Herrin coach Jim Kowzan. “At that time it it was a one-run game and we ended that rally.”
The Tigers responded with two sixth-inning runs to cinch the victory.