Canfield, Spartans don't miss a beat
WATSEKA — Two weeks turned into three. Soon it was four. Then, five.
St. Joseph-Ogden's Stephanie Canfield sat out 12 midseason games during her senior year with a torn hamstring.
When she returned, Canfield still wasn't at full strength.
"She couldn't run at 100 percent the first couple weeks (back)," SJ-O coach Randy Wolken said.
For many teams, the absence of a player who was an All-Area first-teamer as a sophomore and again as a junior would be devastating. At SJ-O — where 10 players have season batting averages over .420 — it was hardly noticeable.
The Spartans won every game before Canfield was hurt. They won every game while she was sidelined and, now, they've won every game since the center fielder returned.
She made sure the streak continued Saturday.
Canfield's second-inning grand slam at Watseka High School gave SJ-O the lead for good as it blasted Seneca 16-3 in a Class 2A sectional title game between state-ranked programs.
SJ-O, which now has the area record for wins in a season (39-0), is top-rated. Seneca is 27-11 and was ranked 20th.
Canfield was concerned the lengthy layoff would affect her quality of play.
"I was nervous I wouldn't be up to the level I had been," Canfield said, "and that I'd be rusty."
The team's top hitter this season still has her stroke. She was among the six Spartans with at least two hits against Irish ace Nicole Pihl (25-10).
"The last week in practice she has been hitting well," Wolken said. "She needed to carry it over into a game. She has been putting pressure on herself because she is such a perfectionist.
"It was important for a senior captain to come through like that."
Canfield's fifth home run of the season restored the lead to SJ-O, 6-3. Seneca recovered from a 2-0 deficit in the top of the first to lead 3-2 after a full inning.
"I was worried about the girls getting down (mentally)," Wolken said. "We haven't been behind too many times. They (the Irish) were fired up, with a chance to return home to play."
The Spartans' reward for winning was advancement to a Monday super-sectional game (noon start) that Seneca will host. SJ-O will play Chicago Christian, a 13-0 winner Saturday.
Canfield's blast started an offensive juggernaut that featured the team scoring runs in six of the seven innings it batted.
"It sparked something," said pitcher Elizabeth Everingham, a right-hander who became the area's first 30-game winner in a season. "It took a lot off of my back."
Samantha Fleming and Abby Immke also crushed home runs.
"In a sectional championship, you expect to see good pitching. I didn't imagine we'd get ahold of her timing so well," Fleming said.
Everingham, Abbey McElwee and Kenzie James were the Spartans besides the home run sluggers with at least two hits. Immke was the leader with a single, double, home run and a steal of home on a delayed steal.
"She doesn't have the speed of some others, but she is one of our most intelligent runners and reads the bases well," Wolken said.
SJ-O swiped nine bases.
"I'll catch some grief for this, but I think this is probably the best team I've ever had," said Wolken, who has a state-record 857 softball coaching wins in 33 years.
"Up and down the lineup, we have hitters. No one we have to hide. This team is solid defensively. Freshman Mady (Poulter) is a really good shortstop, and there can't be many teams with more better base runners."
The crown jewel is Everingham.
"For a team to win 30 games in a season is great," Wolken said. "For one pitcher to do it is unbelievable. She is one of the best athletes ever to come through this area."
Saturday's win was special for the seven SJ-O seniors, six of whom start. Their class — the only one in school history with four successive 30-win seasons — has played for a sectional championship every year during high school but came up short before the resounding win against Seneca.
"We got over the hump and won in style," Wolken said. "We hit the ball hard, and I was impressed with 16 runs."
After the first inning, Everingham settled down to retire 16 of the final 18 Irish batters she faced. She fashioned a three-hitter, walked two and struck out six, one to end the game for her seventh consecutive out.
By contrast, SJ-O had 15 hits and had eight other batters reach by walks or being hit by a pitch.
"I'm happy with how well we're doing as a team," Canfield said. "We should definitely be going to state."
The Spartans are in the Elite Eight. Monday's four super-sectional winners advance to the state semifinals, which are Friday in East Peoria.
"Pretty cool," Immke said.
"It's a great year to be a Spartan," Fleming said.
In the past quarter-century, two softball teams in the state have finished with unbeaten records. St. Joseph-Ogden’s top-ranked 2A Spartans (39-0) are trying to join the elite group:
YEAR SCHOOL CLASS RECORD
2006 Moline 2A 40-0
2010 Coal City 2A 40-0