Future Illini's slam stuns Spartans

Future Illini's slam stuns Spartans

ATHENS — The tears flowed.

The hugs followed.

Just not in a manner the St. Joseph-Ogden softball envisioned happening Monday afternoon at the Athens Sports Complex.

Leading Williamsville by two runs and only needing one out to secure a second straight trip to the Class 2A state tournament, the Spartans never recorded the final out.

Instead, they were left to contemplate the stunning rally Williamsville — led by Illinois signee Danielle Dennis — pulled off for the Bullets to post a dramatic 6-3 win against SJ-O at the Athens Super-Sectional.

“It’s tough,” SJ-O coach Randy Wolken said. “It’s very tough. There’s not many words I can use to help ease the pain.”

Speechless is one way to describe how the Spartans (32-4) must have felt after letting a 3-1 lead slip away in the final inning against the Bullets (33-5).

After SJ-O junior pitcher Ashtyn Cromwell struck out Williamsville designated player Olivia Felts with a changeup for the second out in the bottom of the seventh, the next three Williamsville batters didn’t record a hit. 

They used a patient approach, though, to set up Dennis’ heroics, drawing two walks and getting hit by a pitch.

“We finally started to be disciplined at the plate and see some pitches to go deep into the count,” Williamsville coach Mindy Ashbaugh said. “That’s been our game plan all year long. We got away from that a little bit at the beginning of the game. We talked about it in between innings that we had to see pitches. Everybody had to get on base one way or the other. Nobody had to be the hero.”

Until Dennis filled that role.

A bases-loaded walk issued by Cromwell to Williamsville center fielder Emma Walbert cut SJ-O’s lead to 3-2 and brought Dennis up with the bases still loaded.

“I knew she was their best hitter, and we wanted to pitch around her,” Wolken said. “When you have the bases loaded and it’s 3-2, you can’t pitch around her.”

Cromwell worked ahead of Dennis, getting her to foul the first two pitches off down the right-field line. 

The second foul ball nearly ended the game for SJ-O, with right fielder Allie Place — whose solo home run over the left-field fence in the top of the seventh extended SJ-O’s lead to 3-1 — making a diving effort along the line.

“It was in the glove and popped out,” Wolken said. “That would have been the game. That would have been state, but you know what, that’s part of the game. She gave a great effort and did everything she could.”

Dennis made sure she ended the game on Cromwell’s next pitch, taking an 0-2 offering and lining it to center field. 

SJ-O center fielder Kenzie Pence gave a valiant chase, but the ball landed about 5 feet beyond Pence’s reach as she extended her glove near the fence

Euphoria ensued for Williamsville.

Dejection developed for SJ-O.

“I usually just try to hit the ball and run,” said Dennis, whose grand slam was her 10th home run of the season. “I knew that it was a good hit. I was just hoping it would fall. Kenzie had a really good read on it in center, and it looked like she was going to catch it.”

No one could catch the Spartans leading up to Monday’s Elite Eight game.

SJ-O won 12 regular season games by at least 10 runs. 

They cruised through Illini Prairie Conference play, outscoring their league foes 92-20 in nine games en route to an outright conference title.

And they were never really threatened in their first four postseason games.

“That’s a heck of a team we just beat,” Ashbaugh said. “A team with a heck of a history. That was a really good game.”

But Williamsville hung around just enough and took advantage of a few late mistakes to deny SJ-O a chance to play in a second consecutive state championship game.

“This is very hard,” SJ-O sophomore shortstop Bailey Dowling said. “We knew they were good. After last year, I was just hoping for something different.”

Dowling, an Alabama commit, showcased her immense potential with a towering two-run home run — her 21st of the season — off Williamsville pitcher Payton Long that went well past the left field fence to give SJ-O a 2-0 lead in the top of the fourth.

“I knew she was going to go up with her riseball,” Dowling said. “I swung and missed on it in my first at-bat. I knew I just had to keep my hands high, and it was right there. It was a great feeling.”

The good vibes didn’t last, however. Dowling will return to anchor SJ-O next season, but the Spartans will have holes to fill with the graduations of Pence, Place, left fielder Frankie Izard, third baseman Emmy Graver and second baseman Aspyn Taylor. 

The senior class compiled a 128-22 record in their SJ-O career that included four sectional titles, a fourth-place state trophy in 2015 and a state runner-up trophy in 2017. 

But the memory of their last game will sting. 

For a while.

“It’s a tough one to lose, especially deciding who goes to state,” Wolken said. “I hate it. I really hate it.”

Dowling echoed the sentiments shared by her coach.

“We’re definitely never going to forget this,” she said. “We don’t ever want to feel this way again.”