URBANA – In the end, Blue Ridge softball players recognized they were part of a new beginning.
"I can't wait to watch them next year," Danita Deffenbaugh said. "We fielded a great young team with so much talent."
Sounds a lot like the Tri-Valley team of 2007 when current star pitchers Molly McCready and Tanna Hinthorne were freshmen. They are now juniors and preparing for their third successive state tournament appearance following Monday's 3-0 Class 1A super-sectional win against the Knights at the UI's Eichelberger Field.
Deffenbaugh won't be able to do more than watch next year. The third baseman was one of five seniors in the starting lineup for Blue Ridge. Her school had never played in a super-sectional in any sport until Monday.
"It was so nice to be here," Deffenbaugh said, "but some of us were a little nervous."
Blue Ridge's final record was 24-10.
"I'm sad we lost, but I don't regret anything," said left fielder Stef Davis, another of the Blue Ridge seniors. "Tri-Valley was a worthy opponent."
The Vikings (32-5) had beaten Blue Ridge 2-1 in a regular-season Heart of Illinois contest and were ranked third in the final regular season state poll. Blue Ridge was rated 12th.
"This was such a wonderful accomplishment," Davis said. "It's overwhelming, a great way to end my senior year."
McCready, a left-hander, limited Blue Ridge to one hit. She issued one walk. They were the only base runners she allowed in a 16-strikeout performance which featured fanning every Blue Ridge starter at least once.
"She had a wicked curve," Davis said.
Tri-Valley scored one run in fourth thanks to the game's only two errors occurring on the same play. McCready tried to bunt a teammate into scoring position. Blue Ridge got the out at second base, but an errant throw to first enabled McCready to advance, and when the attempt to nail her at second sailed into center field, she raced all the way home.
Following a 44-minute delay for lightning and rain, the Vikings scored two earned runs in the bottom of the sixth against freshman Jordan Wheeler.
"I told our coaches I wanted to put an earned run on the board," Tri-Valley coach Jim Adams said. "I don't like to beat teams on an unearned run."
McCready, who sruck out the side in three of the first five innings, was so dominant that the Knights were unable to hit a ball out of the infield. Marcie Crawford beat out an infield single in the second inning and Wheeler walked in fourth. Both runners advanced to second base, but could get no farther.
Three of the six Blue Ridge batters who took called third strikes did so with runners in scoring position.
"What the heck," Blue Ridge coach Myron Schroeder said. "I'm thrilled with the way the season went. We were the Cinderella team and if you saw us play three weeks ago, you'd have said we wouldn't have gotten out of the regional. Maybe a lack of experience caught up with us."
If there was any dissatisfaction, Schroeder said it stemmed from the IHSA's timing of the super-sectional.
"We came back (from Saturday's sectional win) without a practice," he said. "I don't like to practice on Sunday."
Schroeder was pleased that the errors didn't cost the Knights the game.
"Having them get a hit here and there, it didn't come down to the throwing errors," he said. "You'd hate to have that linger."
Tri-Valley had four hits against Wheeler (15-6).
"No one thought we'd do good, but we proved them wrong," Deffenbaugh said, "but we didn't do it for them. We did it for us."
The Knights did so, Schroeder said, because of players like Deffenbaugh.
"She was the lone returning infielder," he said. "She was a leader and solidified the infield."
Besides Davis and Deffenbaugh, the other Blue Ridge players who ended their prep careers were outfielder Courtney Cox, first baseman Amanda Lawrence, outfielder Chelsea Reynolds and designated hitter Jordan Watts.
They leave behind a legacy that includes 20-win seasons the past three years under Schroeder and an Elite Eight berth this spring along with a win total (24) that has been surpassed by just two Blue Ridge softball teams.