TUSCOLA — Kelsey Cleland's life — at least her softball life — took an upward swing nearly two years ago.
It was the summer after her sophomore year at Tuscola High School. Cleland joined a summer travel team — the East Central Illinois Diamonds — and coach Randy Skaggs insisted that the infielders wear protective masks.
"It was hard to get used to," Cleland said.
Now the second baseman wears one automatically. "I feel much more protected," she said.
With that protection comes the change Tuscola coach Lenny Sementi most notices.
"She's more confident," he said.
Confidence is not in short supply for the Warriors, a state-ranked Class 1A team that compiled a 14-game winning streak earlier this spring. Even Thursday, after Meridian took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the second inning at Ervin Park, the Warriors weren't wondering if they could regroup to capture an Okaw Valley Conference victory.
"We've been together long enough, we know we can pick each other up," third baseman Audrey Mooney said.
"We trust each other," first baseman Lexi Rogers said.
By game's end, Tuscola had rallied for a 5-4 triumph in a game it was outhit 11-4.
Sementi pointed out an obvious key.
"The senior experience," he said. "They don't give up and fold."
With the team's 17th win in 22 games, another item can be added to the list of "sure things" in softball: four balls for a walk, three outs to an inning, the team with the most runs wins. And now this truism: Tuscola's infield, from third to first, will feature Mooney, Sam Ledbetter, Cleland and Rogers.
It's an all-senior unit that has started together on varsity the last two years. Cleland, Ledbetter and Mooney were regulars as sophomores. Cleland and Ledbetter were varsity fixtures as freshmen. Even as ninth-graders, the group was a veteran one, having joined forces in rec leagues since fifth grade.
They understand the difference in an opponent getting the Warriors down and in being able to keep them down.
"We keep fighting," Rogers said. "We stay positive."
The Tuscola roster numbers eight seniors. All were in the lineup against Meridian for their Senior Night game, but it won't be their last contest on the field.
"Regionals are here," Mooney said.
Besides an all-senior infield, Sementi lined up an all-senior outfield of Taylor Kauffman, Sam Kohlbecker and Emma Comerford, from left to right. Kohlbecker, he said, "is our unsung hero."
Kohlbecker scored the first run against the Hawks and started a four-run second-inning outburst. The big hit was a two-run single by winning pitcher Erin Walker, a sophomore who had two of Tuscola's four hits.
Though Walker (14-3) allowed 11 hits, she walked no one and struck out five, one to end the game. All of Meridian's runs came on two-out hits.
Ledbetter scored the run that broke a 4-4 tie in the third inning. After drawing her second consecutive four-pitch walk, she advanced on ground balls by Rogers and Kohlbecker and raced home when Mooney received the first of her two four-pitch walks, but the final ball eluded the Meridian catcher for a wild pitch.
"It only goes up from here," Mooney said. "We'll continue to get better."
That's not good news for the other five teams assigned to the regional that will be at Ervin Park in 10 days.
SCHOOL RECORD RANK CLASS
St. Joseph-Ogden 27-0 1 2A
GCMS 19-6 9 1A
Tuscola 17-5 12 1A
Blue Ridge 17-7 13 1A
Monticello 20-8 13 2A
Mahomet-Seymour 19-9 19 3A
Schlarman 14-8 HM 1A