Highland wrote another chapter into the history book after cementing the program’s first ever sectional championship with a 6-0 victory over Waterloo to win the Class 3A Mascoutah Sectional crown Saturday.
After being shut down by Waterloo ace Kasey Bradley twice, where one bad inning late in each game allowed Waterloo to rally for 6-2 and 4-0 victories during the regular season, Highland refused to let it happen again.
This time it was a much different story. Highland knocked Bradley around for three runs in the bottom of the first inning and never looked back as freshman right-hander Kirsten Plocher and sophomore left-hander Aubrey Hacke, along with a lockdown defense, combined to shut out Waterloo on two hits and three walks.
“They’re hungry, and they earned it,” said Highland coach Brittne Zobrist, who helped guide the program to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history in her first season at the helm. “The first two games we played them it was really close, and it was one bad inning, but we have done so well at shutting that down (in the playoffs). These girls were ready today. We always said that the hardest thing to do is beat a good team three times.”
While Waterloo’s season came to an end at 35-2 in the program’s first sectional final appearance, Highland improved to 24-9 and advances to face (Springfield) Sacred-Heart Griffin at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Springfield Super-Sectional, which will be held at the University of Illinois-Springfield.
“We ran into a buzzsaw today,” said Waterloo coach Matt Mason. “They were the better team.”
Offensively for Highland, sophomores Reily Kassay and Hannah Miener as well as senior Mallory Rutz all collected two hits apiece, highlighted by one double each. The trio all played a key role in the three-run first that broke the game open from the outset for the Bulldogs against Bradley and Waterloo.
“I felt like we were on top today,” said Kassay, who finished with a game-high three RBIs. “We knew when we came out here that this was our game. We lost to them the last two times and we knew that the third time was going to be our charm. I am very proud of my team.”
Miener scored two runs and drove one in.
“We wanted this game so bad,” Miener said. “Mallory Rutz, our senior, we do it all for her. I am so happy our senior gets to do it this year. It’s overwhelming that we made history and we’re one win away from state. It’s just crazy, and it’s more than we ever imagined, but we’re here so it’s awesome.”
Rutz crossed the plate to score the game’s first run and later knocked in a run with a double in the sixth.
“I am so happy and proud to be a part of this team and make history with this group of girls,” said Rutz, who was overcome with emotion. “We all have pulled together and become so close. We pull for each other and go to battle for each other. We are like a family.”
After the first out in the home half of the first frame, Rutz was hit by a pitch. Next, Peyton Holzinger reached on an error as her ground ball got past Waterloo first baseman Ashley Reeder. Miener then broke through against Bradley with a double to the opposite field in right to score Rutz with the game’s first run and the only tally the Bulldogs really needed.
After the second out, Kassay cranked a double of her own the opposite way to right to plate both Holzinger and Miener and stake Highland to an cozy lead early at 3-0.
“I think she (Bradley) was tired after pitching so many games, and we saw her the last two times, so this time we just rocked her,” Kassay said. “It feels so good to win after all the hard work we have put in. Everybody seemed relaxed today and it feels amazing.”
Miener said everyone on the team worked so hard the whole week leading up to the game and it paid big dividends.
“Today everyone just saw her (Bradley) well and everyone drove the ball.” she said. “It was a good team effort. She is a good pitcher and they’re a good team but we were better today.”
The three-run first was more than enough offense for Plocher and Hacke, who not only blanked their opponent, but never let a Waterloo base runner get past second base.
“We really wanted to pound them into the ground,” said Plocher, who shut out Waterloo over the first five innings on two hits and two walks while striking out five to raise her record to 8-2. “We really wanted to get out and get on top early, and that really helped me to get ahead in the count instead of falling behind. It really made a big difference.
“This is totally a dream come true, and I never thought I would be here (Elite Eight) as a freshman. I am so proud of everybody, and I wanted to really show people how hard we’ve been working the past few months.”
But Highland was not done on offense, tacking on two runs in the fifth followed by one final tally in the sixth.
In the fifth, Holzinger and Miener led off with back-to-back singles, which were followed by an RBI ground out by Wright to drive in Holzinger and an RBI double off the bat of Kassay to score Miener to widen the lead to 5-0.
With one out in the sixth, Megan Frey was hit by a pitch and Hacke bunted for a single to set the table for Rutz, who slammed a run-scoring double to left-center.
After Waterloo rallied late in both games during the regular season — the first time against Hacke and the second time versus Plocher — coach Zobrist devised a plan prior to the sectional title game to change pitchers for Waterloo’s third time through the batting order.
So, Zobrist summoned the lefty Hacke to relieve Plocher to begin the sixth, and Hacke made the move pay off.
“We had a game plan going in where we were going to let (Plocher) get through the order twice and then switch it up, so they couldn’t get comfortable in the box,” Zobrist said. “Give them a different look, especially since she’s (Hacke) a lefty. So, it’s a totally different angle.”
After walking the first hitter (Taylor Augustine) she faced, Hacke ended up facing the minimum over her two innings to close out the historic win. Frey helped by gunning down Augustine attempting to steal second base when she fired to Rutz covering to end the sixth. Hacke then threw a perfect seventh.
Hacke admitted that it is different coming in as a reliever as opposed to being a starter, especially in such a big game.
“It was a little stressful, but I played in the outfield so I was warm and it wasn’t like coming off the bench,” Hacke said. “It wasn’t hard to warm up in between innings, It was easier (with a big lead) because that kept my mind clear.
“Making history with this team and this group of girls is amazing because we’re so young. Elite Eight, I don’t think anybody has ever done that from Highland (softball).”