LINCOLN – Throughout the season – and again Friday – Rantoul High School softball players made the sacrifices necessary to be successful.
When the team was struggling to stay above .500 a month ago (11-10 record), Paige Harms shifted from the infield to center field to solidify the defense.
"She can cover a lot of ground and can track down a lot of balls," Rantoul coach Travis Flesner said.
Friday's sacrifices were courtesy of the Rantoul batters. The last three innings the Eagles got runners on base in the Class 3A sectional semifinals against Chatham Glenwood, they were moved along by a bunt.
A fourth Eagle, Katie Gehrt, drove in the team's lone run in a 3-1 loss to the Titans on a suicide squeeze in which Lizzy Kern scored.
"Our small game was good," Flesner said. "We just needed to capitalize a little more with some hits."
Rantoul made its first sectional appearance in more than a decade. Chatham Glenwood, which has produced nine Division I players in Vondel Edgar's coaching tenure, was in the sectionals for the 11th time in the past 12 years.
"There has to be a comfort level from having been there," Edgar said, "even though some of my girls didn't play in last year's game."
Both schools relied on the pitching of a right-handed junior who wore No. 13.
Rantoul's Hanna Mennenga showed the Titans what to expect in the first inning, striking out all three batters she faced. Mennenga recorded 15 of 18 outs via strikeouts and became the eighth player in state history to amass at least 400 strikeouts in a season.
She finished the season with 404 strikeouts.
Edgar cautioned his team not to get discouraged.
"We knew she had the ability to strike people out," he said. "We told them, 'If you strike out, the game isn't over. Put it in play when you can.' "
Chatham Glenwood scored the game's first run in the third without the benefit of hitting the ball. Mennenga issued a walk and, after a wild pitch advanced the runner to second, walked a second batter. Two more wild pitches let in the first run.
Both coaches recognized the reasons for the errant pitches.
"We'll live and die with a wild pitch here and there from a rise-ball pitcher," Flesner said. "It's tough being a catcher and judging whether it will rise 6 inches or a foot."
A former fastpitch catcher, Edgar can sympathize.
"I've been there and I understand the pressure in that situation," Edgar said. "It's difficult and it's not a pleasant feeling."
Mennenga (23-11) and the Titans' Sarah Garrison (21-4) threw matching five-hitters. Gehrt was 2 for 3 and the only Eagle with more than one hit.
"We hit about as well as we'll hit against someone like that," Flesner said.
Gehrt was credited with a single on her successful suicide squeeze that produced a 1-1 tie in the fourth. Flesner said it was the perfect time to make the call.
"We had our fastest runner at third (Kern) and one of our smartest batters at bat," he said.
Kern was one of two seniors who started for Rantoul. The third baseman was joined on the field by second baseman Melissa McClain. McClain was involved in the only three outs that weren't strikeouts. She caught two popups and fielded a ground ball.
"We gave them a run for their money and I'm grateful to be a part of this," Kern said. "I'm sad this is my last game, but this is the best record Rantoul has had in years."
With the nucleus that's returning, Kern expects to continue seeing changing attitudes about playing the Eagles.
"It's been like, 'Oh, easy win,' but they (Titans) had it a little tougher than what they might have thought," she said.
This year's Rantoul team made a quantum leap in the improvement category.
"We started pretty rocky but kept progressing (with 14 wins in the previous 16 games before Friday)," Kern said. "When we got the right girls in the right places, we became a better defensive team."
Chatham Glenwood snapped the 1-1 tie in the fifth – the inning Rantoul committed the game's only error – and added a final run on a sixth-inning wild pitch.
"You have to take advantage of situations when you get them," Edgar said, "and I'm thankful today was that day for us."
The Titans were without one of their assistant coaches, ex-Illini Brittany Koester, who was in the first freshman class at the school when Edgar was hired. She was at her rehearsal dinner and will be married to Phillip Bisch today.
Edgar credited Koester for helping tutor his ninth Division I recruit, Murray State signee Kaitlyn England, a catcher.
"She's done a good job in her two years on staff," he said.
Mennenga continues to open eyes as well.
"She's worked hard these past three years," Flesner said. "I've seen more improvement in her than I've seen in any softball player."
Kern understands why that development is occurring.
"She has put in the time and effort," Kern said. "She's known for getting strikeouts. I can't wait to see what she can do next year."
Against Chatham Glenwood, Mennenga struck out every batter at least one time to conclude a season when she averaged 1.8 strikeouts per inning.
The Titans have a short turnaround before the sectional title game. The team will be back on the field 16 hours after Friday's game ended to play Decatur Eisenhower – one of four Big 12 schools seeking berths in the super-sectionals – for a 10 a.m. game today at Lincoln High School.