It took only a few minutes after a hard and disappointing 7-3 loss to Sacred Heart-Griffin in the Illinois Class 3A softball super sectional for Highland sophomore pitcher Aubrey Hacke to find everything that was right about the Bulldogs’ impossible, dream season.
With her teammates in the dugout behind her, many in tears, and the Springfield team celebrating their trip to state, Hacke declared the season — even Tuesday’s loss — worth while.
“I can see past it,” she said. “I can see we had a great season for how young we are, and I can see all the trials and tribulations we got through to get to the super sectionals. The ride here has been amazing, and I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened.”
Highland will lose just one senior — shortstop Mallory Rutz — from this season’s miracle team, which won 24 games, including regional and sectional championships. The team’s youth and growth were at the forefront of head coach Brittne Zobrist’s mind as she addressed the players.
“This is an extremely young team,” she said. “I only have two upperclassmen, so you can count on seeing more of us the next few years.”
The Bulldogs have likely not seen the last of Sacred Heart-Griffin, which has won 33 games, also with just one senior.
The Cyclones scratched back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the super-sectional showdown in the sixth and put it away with a nine-batter, four-run rally in the top of the seventh inning.
Seven Highland errors contributed to three unearned SHG runs, but it was six Cyclone hits that did the damage in the final two decisive innings.
“It’s not really what we meant to do on the field today,” said Zobrist, who led the Bulldogs to their first ever sectional title in just her first year. “But, they hit the ball where we weren’t standing and they hit it hard. You can’t take that away from them.”
Highland opened the early lead with a three-run first. Rutz walked and Peyton Holzinger singled with one out. Hannah Miener, Lauren Wright, and Reily Kassay all followed with RBI singles.
But SHG junior pitcher Whitney David held the Bulldogs to just two hits the rest of the way. The Bulldogs’ next best chance to score came in the fifth, when they put runners on second and third with two out.
“I think we exhaled a little too much after we took the lead,” Zobrist said. “We should have kept the pedal to the metal, but we didn’t. We did the same thing to Waterloo Saturday, scoring three runs early. The difference was that we stayed aggressive and kept hitting. We just let up today.”
Hacke pitched five good innings for Highland, allowing two runs, one earned, on four scattered hits. She struck out six and walked two.
But the Cyclones crept back into the game with a pair of unearned runs.
It became a one-run game in the fifth when SHG’s Katie McLean led off with a single and scored on a sharp ground ball that went through the legs of both the Highland shortstop and left fielder.
Zobrist turned to freshman Kirsten Plocher in the sixth inning, she said, to give Sacred Heart-Griffin a different look.
“It was the third time through the order,” Zobrist said. “We wanted to change it up a little so they would see something different and not get comfortable in the box.”
But Plocher, too, was touched for an unearned run that tied the game.
Senior McKenna Butcher singled and went to second when an outfielder’s attempt to force her at first was overthrown.
Butcher advanced to third on a fly ball by Katie Weller, then scored on another overthrown attempt to get her out.
“The defense just wasn’t as tight as we’d like it, which isn’t typical at all,” said Zobrist.
Sacred Heart-Griffin scored the go-ahead runs in the seventh, two before Highland’s third pitcher, Addison Rinderer, could get an out. The Cyclones got RBI hits from Ashton Dyche, David, Weller and Makenzie Trees.
Sierra Huelsmann also got a hit for Highland.
Game at a Glance
BULLDOGS FIRST: Mallory Rutz walked with one out and Peyton Holzinger dropped a single over the third baseman's head. Hannah Miener singled home Rutz, Lauren Wright drove home Holzinger and Reilly Kassay drove home Meiner. HIGHLAND 3, SACRED HEART-GRIFFIN 0.
CYCLONES THIRD: Claire Dodson walked, stole second and scored on a hit to right by Ashton Dyche. HIGHLAND 3, SACRED HEART-GRIFFIN 1
CYCLONES FIFTH: Katie McLean got a one out hit and scored on a hard ground ball by Bree Durhake, that went through the legs of the Highland shortstop and left fielder. HIGHLAND 3, SACRED HEART-GRIFFIN 2.
CYCLONES SIXTH: Makenna Butcher got a hit to right and went to second when an attempt by the right fielder to get the force out got passed the first baseman. The next batter flied out but an attempt to get Butcher at third on the tag, went wide of the third baseman and allowed the tying run to score. HIGHLAND 3, SACRED HEART-GRIFFIN 3.
CYCLONES SEVENTH: McLean led off with a triple to center and Bree Derhake walked. McClean scored when Dyche hit a line drive off relief pitcher Kirsten Plocher. Derhake scored from third on a ground ball by Whitney David, who reached first on the fielder's choice. Katie Weller singled to score Dyche with one out. SACRED HEART-GRIFFIN 6, HIGHLAND 3