Host Columbia caught Highland napping early and scored three runs in the first two innings. But the Bulldogs woke up with plenty of time to spare, erupting for a six-run third and never looking back en route to posting an 11-6 win over the Eagles in the championship game of the Class 3A Columbia Regional.
“We had a wake-up call early, and we knew we had to keep fighting and working hard as a team,” said Highland junior Reily Kassay, who reached base all five times after going 3-for-3 with two walks, two RBI and two runs scored. “Everybody came together and did their part. This win was all about us coming together and getting it done as a team.”
The Bulldogs made first-year coach Greg Exton a regional champion, but it is the third regional title in a row for Highland overall, with all three coming under a different head coach.
“I think this team is as talented as last year’s team,” Exton said referencing last year’s squad that advanced to the super-sectional before finally bowing out. “And if we keep coming with the attitude that we did for these two regional games, I’ll take our chances against just about anybody.”
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Joining Kassay in the three-hit club was junior Hannah Miener, who reached base four times after going 3-for-4 with one walk, two RBI and one run.
“We were so ready for this game and we wanted this game so bad,” Miener said. “Everybody did their job, this was a team win completely, from everybody on the field to everybody cheering in the dugout. We were ready to battle today, we were determined to get this win and we did.”
The Bulldogs, who have won five in a row to improve to 24-8, made Columbia pay at every turn after putting together nine hits with the Eagles’ giving nature with 10 walks — from two pitchers — and five errors.
Chelsey Pena, Calli Wibbenmeyer and Courtney Weilbacher contributed two hits apiece for Columbia, which matched Highland’s output for the game with nine hits.
“We definitely had some things happen today that we haven’t all year,” said Columbia coach Rhonda Major, whose team finished 24-6. “But I am proud of the girls for the way they continued to work together and fight until the end. That’s all you can ask for, they’re human...It just wasn’t our day.”
Highland’s six-run explosion in the third was fueled by four hits, three errors and two walks. Freshman Lily Garbett had the big blow as she capped it all off with a two-run double.
Also in the game-breaking rally, Miener also slapped a run-scoring single to center and junior winning pitcher Aubrey Hacke and senior Wright also each had one RBI.
The Eagles kept battling but could never catch back up. After Kassay’s RBI single capped off a two-run fifth to put her team on top 8-3, Columbia responded with a three-run bottom half.
But the Bulldogs closed it out with a three-run seventh after stringing together two hits with three more free passes and another crucial error. Kassay added another run-scoring single and Hacke had another RBI walk.
Hacke, who also had a hit to go with her two walks and two RBI, got the win to improve to 7-3 on the season. She limited the damage from the Eagles’ potent sticks, giving up four earned (six overall) on nine hits and only walked one while striking out two.
Highland advances to face Herrin at 4:30 p.m. today in a semifinal of the Herrin Sectional. Herrin crushed host Carbondale 11-1 in Saturday’s regional championship.