Bulldogs turn left for victory
RANTOUL — Left-handed batters in softball are often pigeonholed into a stereotype.
Most of the time, they're slap hitters who use their speed to push a hit toward third base or get on with a bunt.
Mahomet-Seymour proved otherwise in Wednesday's 14-0 win against Urbana in five innings in a Class 3A Rantoul Regional semifinal that advanced the top-seeded Bulldogs into Saturday morning's regional championship game at Wabash Park.
Bulldogs coach Mark Jones had four left-handed batters in his lineup — Vanessa Heinold, Jess Roberts, Lindsey Ogle and Ally Thornton — against the fourth-seeded Tigers, and all four produced offensively. The quartet went a combined 6 for 13, with six runs and seven RBI.
"They've been struggling a bit, but today they really came through moving the ball around the infield," Jones said. "We need them to get on base so we can use their speed. We did a good job of that."
Roberts (1 for 2) drilled a two-run double to the fence in the right-center field gap to pad the Bulldogs' lead at 5-0 in the bottom of the second. Thornton (1 for 3) roped a two-run single into right field that gave M-S a 12-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth.
"A couple of them are three-dimensional," Jones said. "They can bunt, they can slap and they can hit the ball hard."
Heinold (2 for 4) reached twice on bunt singles. Ogle (2 for 3) reached twice on bunt singles and also drove in a run on a suicide squeeze.
"We've been talking all week about the short game is going to be a big part of the game as you go forward here in close games," Jones said. "We've got speed. Why not use it?"
Right-hander Allie Tarrant (14-10) threw a two-hit shutout for M-S (21-15). She struck out five and walked one. The Bulldogs' defense didn't commit an error while Urbana (13-23) committed four behind left-hander Jessica Kearns.
"That's probably the most I've seen them bunt up and down the lineup," Urbana coach Brad Lovett said of M-S. "They usually have one or two that bunt, and the rest hit it to the gaps and drive them in. They all bunted very well, and they all ran the bases very well."
Urbana graduates four seniors from a team that won 13 games for the second season in a row.
"Not that it's anything great, but we also hold the record for most losses in a row at 149," Lovett said. "Out of the 13 area top strikeout pitchers, we faced eight of them this year. The hitting has been coming up. We just don't have a dominant pitcher. We're getting one strikeout a game, so we've got to make a lot of plays. When (Mahomet-Seymour) hits the ball as well as they do, we've got to make plays."
The Bulldogs will try for their second straight regional championship Saturday after winning the program's first in 2011.
"We've got to focus on the things we've got to do to be successful," Jones said. "Regardless of who we play, it's going to be a tough game. We've been talking all week about taking care of what we can do, perform, do the things right and hope that things work out in our favor."
Rantoul 5, Centennial 0. Courtney Stamm had success against Jamie Hedrick. Other than that, Hedrick, the Rantoul senior right-hander, had no trouble stifling Centennial's offense.
Hedrick threw a three-hit shutout — with all three hits coming from Stamm — and the second-seeded Eagles gave her early run support to emerge with a victory under the lights against third-seeded Centennial.
"She was flawless," Rantoul first baseman Sarah Hunt said.
The victory was Rantoul's first postseason win since the Eagles won a 2009 regional championship.
"It's really nice to get off the schneid there," Rantoul coach Travis Flesner said. "We played a couple regional games we could have won. It's nice to actually come out and play well all the way around."
The current crop of Eagles will get a chance to win a regional at 11 a.m. Saturday, when they face top seed and rival Mahomet-Seymour. The two Corn Belt Conference teams split their two regular season games.
"I'm ready to play Mahomet," said Hunt, who went 1 for 2 and helped trigger a three-run second inning that gave Rantoul a 4-0 lead. "I am so pumped. This is crazy. I didn't think I'd be this excited and nervous all at the same time. It felt really good to win the first game of the regional."
Rantoul (18-18) knocked off Centennial (16-19) when it mattered.
Centennial defeated the Eagles 8-4 on April 2 in Rantoul, but the Chargers didn't face Hedrick — who struck out six and retired eight batters in a row two times — the first time around.
"I thought she did a nice job," Centennial coach George Hendricks said of Hedrick. "She moved the ball around well, and she didn't walk anybody. That's the key to the game. Don't walk anybody."
Hedrick (14-14) said she thinks it benefited Rantoul because Centennial did not see her pitch before.
"It probably did," Hedrick said. "I think they would have been warming up against some faster (pitching) because they were late on some balls."
I'm just ready to win (Saturday) because I've never been in this big of a game in high school. It's a pretty big deal because everybody doubts Rantoul."
Centennial right-hander Katie Janson (10-13) walked three batters in the bottom of the second with Rantoul ahead 1-0, and all three scored. Catcher Grace Bjornbak had an RBI double, but aggressive base running allowed the Eagles to plate the other two runs and go ahead 4-0. It almost didn't materialize that way after Hunt failed to execute a suicide squeeze.
She ended up drawing a walk and worked herself out of a rundown to let Kalista Lutes score from third to give Rantoul a 3-0 lead.
"It was all part of the plan," Hunt joked. "I had it all mapped out in my head."
Besides Hedrick, freshman center fielder Carson Church stood out in her first postseason game for Rantoul. She went 2 for 2 with two RBI and walked in her other plate appearance. Church also made a sliding catch in the sixth inning to take a hit away from Centennial shortstop Lexi Hall.
"It felt really good because I was kind of struggling in earlier games and popping up," Church said. "I was working on not dropping my hands with Coach Flesner a lot."
Church was one of three freshmen, along with second baseman Kaylee Denton and right fielder Allison Jordahl, who started for the Eagles.
"At the start of the game I feel like we all were pretty nervous, but as the game went on, we all started calming down," Church said. "We were just really into the game."
The calmness the Eagles — who didn't commit an error while Centennial had three — played with could be traced back to Hedrick's presence in the pitcher's circle.
"She has been just a warrior for four years," Flesner said. "Her improvement as a pitcher, not only pitching, but game management, is huge. She knows the situations, knows what she needs to do to get the girls out and knows the batters' tendencies after she's seen them one time. It's awesome to have a player like that out there."