RANTOUL — Rich Thomas' words were prophetic.
"If we can get to the top of our order," the Rantoul softball assistant coach said before he settled into his spot in the first-base coach's box before the top of the seventh inning started with the Eagles trailing Mahomet-Seymour 5-2, "we're going to win this game."
He was right, and Rantoul won the game.
The Eagles pulled off a thrilling comeback down by three runs and down to their final three outs before holding on to beat Mahomet-Seymour 6-5 and win the Class 3A Rantoul Regional championship Saturday at Wabash Park.
The win advances the Eagles into a sectional semifinal game at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Maxwell Park in Normal against Normal West, which defeated Normal U-High 10-0 in five innings Saturday.
"It was looking (bad), but no one was mad at someone for making a mistake or getting down on themselves," Rantoul shortstop Sadie Adkins said of the deficit Rantoul had going into the top of the seventh. "Every single person tried the best I've ever seen anyone play on our team. No one ever gave up."
Adkins had the only hit for the second-seeded Eagles (19-18) in the seventh. The top-seeded Bulldogs (21-16) committed three errors on routine ground balls hit by Rantoul, including one on Adkins' hit that scored the winning run.
"I just wanted to get on base," said Adkins, who went 2 for 3. "I just knew we needed base runners. I was worried about getting the ball on the ground and getting on base so we had the opportunity to score."
In the seventh, pinch hitter Jada Walker and third baseman Kalista Lutes drew back-to-back walks with one out.
Senior Sarah Hunt slapped a ground ball to Bulldogs shortstop Alyssa Spoerer, but she didn't field it cleanly to load the bases.
Walker scored on a passed ball with Rantoul leadoff batter Grace Bjornbak at bat to make it 5-3. Bjornbak then hit a sharp ground ball to M-S second baseman Audrey Carlson, but Carlson's throw was low and past first baseman Ally Thornton. Lutes scored on the ground ball, and when the throw got past Thornton, Hunt rounded third and slid in safely to tie the game at 5.
"I'm not usually the one to slide all the time, and I heard Coach say, 'Get down!' " Hunt said. "Right when I popped up, I just jumped up in the air. I knew that's when it was our time."
Bjornbak advanced to second on the Bulldogs' second error of the inning and came around to score on their third error. Spoerer stopped Adkins' ball hit deep in the hole, but her throw to first was wide, allowing Bjornbak to scoot home with the go-ahead run and give Rantoul a 6-5 lead.
"I came from second and I was rounding thinking, 'All right, this is it. I'm either going to make it or I'm not,' " Bjornbak said. "Then I crossed the plate, and the world was just going crazy."
M-S, however, nearly won the game in the bottom of the seventh. Rantoul senior pitcher Jamie Hedrick retired the first two batters she faced before Spoerer (3 for 4, two runs) drilled a double into the right-center field gap.
Cleanup batter Alie Tarrant, who had two hits and two RBI, stepped to the plate. Tarrant — who threw all seven innings for the Bulldogs, giving up three hits and fanning eight — drilled a 1-0 pitch from Hedrick deep to center, but Rantoul freshman Carson Church caught it on the warning track to start the uproarious celebration that ensued.
"I felt the warning track, so I was kind of nervous, but I knew I had it, so I was excited," Church said. "I thought I was going to drop it because I was so excited, but I didn't. I jumped up with joy. It was amazing."
Saturday's win was Rantoul's first regional championship since 2009. It also gave the Eagles two wins against their rivals this season.
"It's sweet because it came against a good team," Rantoul coach Travis Flesner said. "Mahomet is a very tough team, and they're going to be tougher even next year. It was a good, hard-fought game, and it's nice when you can beat a good team. You don't want to win a regional by beating a nobody."