A big stage doesn’t seem to rattle the young Highland Lady Bulldogs softball team.
Highland pitcher Aubrey Hacke tossed a complete-game shutout while Lauren Wright homered and tripled to score the game’s only two runs as the duo sparked the Lady Bulldogs to a 2-0 win over Carbondale Tuesday in a semifinal of the Class 3A Mascoutah Sectional.
“The girls came out and played great,” said Highland coach Brittne Zobrist, whose team improved to 23-9 and will play for the sectional championship at 11 a.m. on Saturday. “Lauren hit the heck out of the ball whether it was in play or over the fence. Aub (Hacke) threw great. Her ball was moving and keeping batters off balance. The defense made some nice plays today too. We really rallied together and stayed tough the whole game. I am so proud of all of them. Now onto Saturday.”
Highland, which repeated as regional champions despite boasting just one senior and junior on the roster, defeated a Terrier team that had seven seniors and had competed in the sectional semifinals three years in a row.
But it was the Lady Bulldogs who looked like a group of seasoned veterans down the stretch against Carbondale (19-7) and it was the Terriers who looked like they were in unfamiliar territory though.
Hacke did not a walk a batter and scattered six hits while striking out three. Despite being a sophomore, the left-hander showed the poise of an upperclassman to wiggle out of a potentially hazardous jam unscathed in the game’s final at-bat.
With Highland leading 2-0, the Terriers loaded the bases on an error and two singles to start the seventh.
First, Hacke got Paige Bird to hit a grounder back to the pitcher’s circle, where Hacke alertly and calmly threw to catcher Megan Frey for a force out.
Two pitches later, Hacke also induced Karly Williard to hit a ground ball back to the pitching circle, where Hacke again calmly fielded it, but this time after she threw the ball home to Frey at home to force out Williard, Frey fired to Hannah Miener at first base to complete a game-ending 1-2-3 double play.
“I was confident from the beginning, and I am confident in my defense,” said Hacke, who improved to 7-5 with a 1.74 ERA. “This was my second sectional start in two years and that’s something that doesn’t happen often so I tried to give my all out on the field. I was hitting spots for the most part. My curveball was very effective, and my rise ball was back to what I know it can be. I got in a better groove as the game went on, and with such a great defense behind me, I was completely confident.”
Hacke sat down nine consecutive batters early in the contest. Three of Carbondale’s six overall hits did not leave the infield.
The two pitchers, Goodale and Hacke, matched each other inning for inning throughout the game until Wright put a charge in Highland’s seven-hit attack with a triple and a home run to account for both runs.
She slugged a leadoff triple in the fourth off Carbondale ace Sam Goodale. Reily Kassay, who went a perfect 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles, immediately followed by lining a single to left field to chase Wright home with the only run the Lady Bulldogs would need.
In the sixth, Wright crushed a towering homer to about the same spot as her triple, but the ball had more loft so it carried over the left-field fence at the 200-foot mark.
“I’m just glad to help out our team,” Wright said. “I felt like I was seeing the ball really well today. I locked on to it and drove it. Today I felt focused at the plate. I didn’t have a solid at-bat my first attempt (reached on error) and wanted to give it all I had the last two at-bats. As a team, we are very unified right now and playing for each other. Aubrey (Hacke) was amazing as usual. She was on today and pulled off some huge strikeouts and plays when we needed them the most.”
Kassay doubled in both the second and sixth innings and senior Mallory Rutz tripled in the fifth, but the Lady Bulldogs could not capitalize and they were left stranded all three times.
Carbondale had a scoring chance in the first when Goodale reached third after singling to lead off the game, but Hacke ended the inning with a strikeout before Goodale.
“Aubrey was fantastic today,” said Highland coach Brittne Zobrist. “She’s really been fantastic all year but she’s also a really good outfielder so I have to determine where I want her to play each day.”
The Terriers hit two straight singles to lead off the fourth, but again Hacke was able to escape unharmed to preserve the shutout.
“Highland played well and we didn’t execute when we needed to, that’s what happens when you get to this level,” said Carbondale coach Kim Wheeler.
Carbondale refused to roll over in the seventh, mounting a potential rally to fill the sacks with on one out after the error and consecutive singles. However, Hacke showed off her defensive prowess to dodge the disaster, including inducing the game-saving double play.
“I knew this year would be special going into it,” Zobrist said. “We have a great group of talented kids who continue to step up and get it done. I don’t think they are ready to be done just yet.”
Highland 5, Alton Marquette 2
Highland sophomore Peyton Holzinger was only hoping to find a way to get on base when she stepped to the plate late in a game knotted at 2-2 with runners at second and third base and a regional championship possibly hanging in the balance.
Holzinger did that and more when she socked a tie-breaking two-run double to center field with one out in the bottom of the fifth inning to power the Lady Bulldogs to a 5-2 win over the Alton Marquette Explorers on Friday in the title game of the Class 3A Civic Memorial Regional at the Bethalto Sports Complex.
After striking out and grounding out in her first two at-bats, Holzinger jumped all over the first pitch she saw, striking a ringing drive to chase home sophomore Aubrey Hacke (single) from third base and senior Mallory Rutz (single) from second to turn the deadlock into a two-run advantage for Highland. Hacke went a game-best 3-for-4 at the dish.
“During the at-bat, all I was looking to do was get on base and hope to advance the runners,” Holzinger said. “All I was looking for was a pitch I could drive. I knew I had to do it, and I was happy I came through for the team. It feels good to win back-to-back regional titles for Highland and especially this year with such a young team. We’re happy to continue playing this season.”
The Lady Bulldogs (22-9) tacked on an insurance run in the sixth when freshman pinch-hitter Gabi Berolatti popped a run-scoring single with two outs to plate sophomore Reily Kassay to complete the game’s scoring.
Holzinger’s clutch blow made a winner of freshman Addison Rinderer. The left-handed Rinderer replaced freshman starter Kirsten Plocher with one out in the fifth inning after Marquette had tied the game and still had two potential go-ahead runs in scoring position.
Rinderer worked out of the jam and shut out the Explorers over the final 2 2/3 innings. She surrendered only one hit and one walk with one strikeout to stay unbeaten at 3-0 with a microscopic ERA of 0.91.
“When they told me I was going in, I was shocked,” Rinderer said. “I went out there kind of nervous and not really warmed up, but I got prepared mentally and went out there and did it.”
Plocher tossed the first four frames for the Lady Bulldogs. Highland’s right-handed ace allowed two earned runs on six hits and two walks while punching out four.
“I believe everyone on the team has stepped up at some point to help get us where we are, and it was definitely a team effort,” Plocher said “I’m so proud of how we have played, and I’m so proud to call them my teammates.”
Highland junior center fielder Lauren Wright said the win was a complete team effort.
“We got hitting in clutch times like with Peyton (Holzinger), and we got solid defense and great pitching under a lot of pressure,” Wright said. “Winning back-to-back regionals for a few of us is pretty amazing and our newcomers this year made this year a lot of fun and have made huge contributions to our program. It is a proud day to be a Bulldog.”
Marquette freshman Megan Schorman, who already has proven to be one of the best young arms in the area, took the loss for the Explorers (22-14) after giving up five runs (two earned) on seven hits and no walks while striking out seven in throwing all six innings.
Highland coach Brittne Zobrist got to experience a regional championship in her first year at the helm after replacing her former coach Sharon Schmitz, who retired after leading the Lady Bulldogs to two regional titles, one last year.
“The girls are excited that they are back-to-back regional champs,” Zobrist said. “The girls came into this game knowing what we needed to do to win. We knew it would take solid defense to win, and that’s just what we did. We had some really nice plays all over the field.
“Both pitchers did a nice job today. KP (Plocher) had a solid outing, and then Addy (Rinderer) came in and slammed the door. Both girls focused on throwing strikes and letting their defense make the plays. Hitting-wise, their pitcher is very good. We knew we had to take good at-bats. The girls really tried to make her work, hit their pitch and not allow her to get them out on what she wanted. We kept putting runs up on the board. We kept pressure on their defense with our speed on the bases and forced them into some errors that scored us runs.”
Highland took advantage of Marquette’s lack of execution to get on the scoreboard first in the bottom of the second. Kassay reached on a one-out error, went to second on a wild pitch, stole third and scored on Explorer freshman catcher Grace Frost’s throwing error during the steal.
Marquette got the run right back in the top half of the third when Schorman blooped a single that plopped down just fair to score Emma Taylor (leadoff single) to tie the game.
Hannah Miener singled to lead off the home half of the fourth. Freshman Mallory Klostermann pinch ran for Miener and advanced to second on a passed before scoring when Kassay reached on an error to put the Lady Bulldogs back on top at 2-1.
But the Explorers pulled even again in the ensuing half inning as Kalie Bucker hit a game-tying RBI double with one out. Then it appeared Megan Wittich had given Marquette the lead when she greeted Rinderer with a deep sacrifice fly to right field that Highland’s Hacke made a nice play to track down. Frost tagged and scored on it, but she was later ruled out to end the inning, because she had left third base early.
So instead of the Explorers up at least 3-2, the score remained in a 2-2 draw with Highland reclaiming the momentum and coming to bat.
“That was definitely a momentum changer,” Zobrist said.
The Lady Bulldogs would then bust through on Holzinger’s game-deciding double and Rinderer, and the defense shut the lid on Marquette’s offense the rest of the way.
“It was a big play by Aub (Hacke) and a huge relief,” Rinderer said. “I think that set the tone for me, and I was ready to go out there and show them what I had. From then on, I was very relaxed up there and knew I had a great defense to back me up and I could make them work.”
Highland advanced to face Carbondale this past Tuesday (after press time) in the first semifinal of the Mascoutah Sectional. Carbondale (19-6) pounded neighbor Marion 8-3 to win the Herrin Regional.
The second semifinal pitted Waterloo against Mater Dei and took place on Wednesday.
“These girls put in a lot of work in the offseason and throughout the regular season,” Zobrist said. “I think they like the results they are seeing from all the lifting and conditioning, fielding and hitting, pitching and catching practice; all the sweat and bruises. This is the best part of the season. This is what you prepare for all year. The girls know there’s still work to do. We don’t want it to be over just yet.”
HHS 14, Jerseyville 1 (4 1/2 innings)
If there was any question as to why Highland got the top seed of the otherwise tight Civic Memorial 3A Softball Regional, the Lady Bulldogs put that discussion to rest Tuesday.
Highland delivered a 14-1, short-game thrashing of Jerseyville in the first semifinal game with a strong display of hitting and an outstanding pitching performance by Plocher.
Going the full five, Plocher gave up four hits and one walk while striking out three to keep Jerseyville off the scoreboard until there was one out remaining. A solo home run broke up her shutout.
Zobrist said she always expects big things from Plocher, despite her being a freshman.
“She’s solid every time we put her on the mound,” Zobrist said. “We know what we’re going to get every time she’s out there. We have a couple nice pitchers in the dugout, and it’s nice to just be able to kind of pick one out of a hat and know that you are going to be in the game no matter what.”
Plocher was also backed by a stout defense that played an error-free game and made some impressive plays behind her.
“The defense really held up their end of the game for her,” Zobrist said. “We had some nice plays by Reily (Kassay) at third and Hannah (Miener) at first. The outfield was solid again.”
The Highland bats were just as impressive as its pitcher and her defense. Smacking 10 hits, the Lady Bulldogs’ offense helped Plocher settle into the game with a four-run first inning.
HHS, which was also helped out by six Jerseyville errors, erupted for five runs in each of the third and fourth frames, so the Lady Bulldogs did not even have to bat in the fifth inning.
“Once (Plocher) steps on the mound, she’s pretty much in her zone,” Zobrist said. “It doesn’t really matter what the score is; she continues to focus on throwing strikes, hitting her spots, mixing it up and doing her job.”
Highland’s biggest offensive contributors were Rutz, Wright and Kassay, who each had two hits.
On a sacrifice attempt in the first inning, Rutz reached first on an error and came around to score later that inning. She finished the game an RBI double in her last at-bat in the fourth.
Kassay drove in a run and scored twice while Wright also crossed home plate twice.
The rest of HHS’ lineup also provided plenty of extra support at the plate.
Plocher, Hacke and fellow freshman Kourtney Zobrist all drove in two runs apiece to share game-high honors, while Miener, who scored twice, and Holzinger each hit a double and knocked in one run.
Coach Zobrist said she was pleased with the offense’s overall performance.
“We were patient, but we were still aggressive,” Zobrist said. “We’ve been doing that better later; hitting the pitch, squaring it up and really driving the ball.”