Memory Lane: SJ-O softball
EACH WEEK, WE’LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN PREPS HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: The Spartans have a good chance to return to the state softball tournament. They won it all in 2006.
Date: June 4, 2006
Headline: CHAMPS! Dream season ends in ‘euphoria’ for Spartans
By FRED KRONER
EAST PEORIA — They had a name — St. Joseph-Ogden softball — but these 15 teen-age girls were without an official title.
Now, they've earned one, and it's theirs for eternity: State Champions, 2006.
The Spartans captured the top softball prize in Class A on Saturday at the Eastside Centre, decisioning Casey-Westfield in SJ-O's second 1-0 triumph of the day.
"No words can describe it," said second baseman Stacy Ferguson, one of six seniors who will trade their jerseys for caps and gowns at today's high school graduation.
Head coach Randy Wolken tried to express his thoughts, but found it tougher than coaching his team to victory.
"I'm in a fog," he said. "It's so hard to describe. You feel so proud. It's euphoria.
"I've waited 27 years for this, and it's the best feeling I've ever had."
The title was the perfect sendoff for retiring SJ-O assistant coach Bob Biehl, who sensed in the preseason this team could be something special.
"This is the first team I've been associated with that said, 'We want to win a state championship,' " Biehl said. "All the others said, 'We want to go to state.' "
Senior co-captain Abby Williams said there was no doubt about the team's goal following a third-place finish at state last year with just one senior starter.
"Us seniors wanted this more than anything," she said.
"We've been dreaming about this the whole season," Thompson added.
They prevailed by the slimmest of margins thanks to executing the fundamentals to perfection.
— SJ-O did not make an error during the final 18 2/3 innings at state;
— Senior pitcher Morgan Finn was — as a poster suggested — Finn-tastic. During the final 65 1/3 innings of her prep career, she allowed one run;
— Six times in Saturday's two games, the Spartans put down sacrifice bunts to advance runners into scoring position. Ferguson was 4 for 4 in her attempts.
Against Casey-Westfield — a team the Spartans lost a doubleheader to on April 20 — SJ-O's lone run was scored in the top of the fourth inning.
Thompson, who had an infield hit in her first at-bat, sized up the situation as she prepared to hit in the fourth.
"They were playing in, trying to take the bunt and slap away," Thompson said. "They weren't respecting me as a hitter. I wanted to hit it by them."
Thompson stroked an opposite-field single into left. Ferguson followed with a textbook-perfect sacrifice and left-hander Jessica Redden had her turn to bat.
Though she had been in a slump — one hit in her previous 10 tournament at-bats — the junior took a cut at the first pitch from Adrianne Denney and drilled a single into left field.
Thompson scored the first — and the final — run of the championship contest.
"I'm on the biggest high right now," Redden said.
Thompson said she was not surprised that Redden emerged as the fourth different squad member in six games to come through with a clutch hit.
"In games she may not have been pounding it, but in practices, she has been hammering it," Thompson said.
Wolken didn't give serious thought to sending up a pinch hitter for Redden.
"I thought, 'She's going to get a hit,' " he said. "I feel so good for her because she stuck with it."
Redden was the Spartans' final base runner in the fourth and Wolken pointed out that her hit would have had less significance had Ferguson not moved Thompson into scoring position.
"Jessica's hit was huge, but you don't get the run if you don't get the sacrifice," he said. "A lot of people don't realize the importance of the little things."
Ferguson took her role in stride.
"We needed to move runners over and I did what I was supposed to," she said. "Today was one of my better days bunting."
In an earlier game against the Warriors, Denney had fashioned an eight-inning no-hitter. Lindsey Barron made sure there would be no repeat at state.
The game's second hitter, she beat out an infield hit. Before collecting the fourth-inning run, SJ-O had several scoring opportunities. The team stranded five runners during the first three innings and did not go down in order against the freshman until the sixth.
"When we've played someone before and lost, it makes us want to go after it more," Williams said. "This is the best way to go out as a senior."
Finn closed out her career with a five-hitter, striking out eight and walking one. Starting with Monday's super-sectional game, she allowed 18 hits in four games and 17 were singles.
"She's a great pitcher and did a great job," said Casey-Westfield coach Katie O'Connell, a former Illini second baseman. "She did everything right and kept us off balance."
Finn retired the first two batters in the seventh before yielding a single to Audra Staley. The first three pitches she threw to Tori Knierim — the No. 9 hitter in the Warriors' lineup — were balls, but she ended the frame by getting Knierim to hit a ground ball to senior third baseman Stacy Buck.
Buck's throw across the diamond to Williams completed the Spartans' 16th consecutive win and put an exclamation mark on the 31-6 season. C-W, which had a 17-game win streak snapped, ended 33-8.
Nine of 11 all-tournament selections, chosen by the media, played in Saturday's championship game. The list:
P — Morgan Finn, SJ-O (MVP)
P — Adrianne Denney, C-W
C — Brittany Morgan, SJ-O
1B — Abby Williams, SJ-O
2B — Megan Murphy, C-W
3B — Taylor Sloat, C-W
OF — Lindsey Barron, SJ-O
OF — Sarah Thompson, SJ-O
OF — Mackenzie Connelly, C-W