WATSEKA — Before Thursday's Class 2A sectional semifinal against Kankakee Bishop McNamara, St. Joseph-Ogden coach Randy Wolken said his team was in for a "terribly tough" game.
His premonition was correct, and it took a bold decision to help the Spartans squeak through to the Watseka Sectional final.
With runners on first and third with one out in the bottom of the fourth inning, after replacing first base caused a lengthy delay, Wolken told Abby Immke to lay down a suicide squeeze. The SJ-O senior laid down a perfect bunt, scoring Elizabeth Everingham and moving Shelby Franzen from first to third.
"I felt really good about that. She said, 'Where do you want it and how hard?' Abby is the best bunter on the team. People don't realize how good of a bunter she is," Wolken said. "It was huge for Shelby to make it to third on that play, too."
In the next at-bat, junior Kenzie James lined a single over the pitcher and into center field to plate Franzen in what would prove to be the winning run. The Spartans held on to beat Bishop McNamara 4-3 and stay alive.
This year is James' first as a starter and regular contributor. Despite her experience, she finished 2 for 2. James turned to Scripture to help get through the pressure.
"I felt like I've been hitting really well, and I felt like I could do it. I read my Bible last night, and there were a lot of verses that helped calm me down," she said.
The patience James found was crucial for SJ-O. In the top of the sixth, Irish pitcher Jaelen Hull used the strong wind in her favor, driving a pitch from Everingham over the left-field wall, cutting the Spartans' lead to 4-2.
The Irish weren't done, though. Jenna Stauffenberg led off the top of the seventh for Bishop McNamara with a shot over the center-field wall. Though the lead was down to one run, Everingham was unflappable.
"I was trying to stay composed. I was a little worried, but I took a deep breath before every pitch, and I knew the team would back me up as long as I didn't let them hit it over the fence," Everingham said.
After giving up the home run, the SJ-O senior struck out two batters and made an over-the-shoulder catch for the final out.
With the win, SJ-O advances to face Seneca in the final at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
The teams are playing for a berth in the Seneca Super-Sectional. After the tough win Thursday, Wolken hopes the Spartans come back strong in the sectional final.
"I worry about not getting up for the next game. When we played Peotone two weeks ago we were really up for that game; then when we came back for Prairie Central, who is maybe not quite as good of a team, we didn't have as quality a game as we should have," he said. "Seneca's pitcher throws even harder than Hull. It's going to be tough."