Relaxed and happy works for Sementi
URBANA — Memorial Day was Flashback Monday for Tuscola softball coach Lenny Sementi.
The early arrivers to Eichelberger Field for a Class 1A super-sectional game didn't see the Warriors playing pitch and catch, fielding grounders or studying the extensive scouting report at their disposal.
They saw a group of teen-agers, clad in their uniforms, singing and dancing.
"For 20 minutes," Sementi said, "they were singing and dancing."
That was music to his ears. It conjured up images of a late November day in 2006. Then a football assistant at Tuscola, before leaving for the state championship game in Champaign against Aledo, Sementi confided to his wife, "I think we'll get destroyed."
En route to the game, Sementi stopped by the team tent and saw quarterback John Wienke. "He was singing and dancing," Sementi said.
In the moments before the season's biggest football game, there wasn't tension but light-hearted moments.
That same feeling permeated the air again on Monday as the softball players entertained themselves and anyone else lucky enough to be there early or able to check them out on YouTube.
Tuscola was the underdog, going against a Dwight team that was ranked No. 1 and had not suffered a loss all season to a Class 1A opponent. Just like six years earlier for the football team, the day belonged to the Warriors.
For the third consecutive postseason game, Tuscola fell behind but rallied to win. The Warriors handed Dwight a 2-1 loss, which made the majority of the 827 spectators happy.
No one in the stands felt better than the individuals who started the afternoon by singing and dancing.
"It's such an amazing feeling," first baseman Lexi Rogers said. "We've made history."
Each team was scoreless in all but one inning. Dwight scored its run following back-to-back two-out hits in the third.
Tuscola's fifth inning started with what looked like a routine fly ball off Sam Kohlbecker's bat into left field. The ball was misplayed, and Kohlbecker wound up on second base. By the time two outs had been recorded, she had only advanced to third.
Amber Miller delivered the tying hit, securing her double with a headfirst dive. After a walk to Kelsey Cleland, Sam Ledbetter pulled a two-strike pitch into left field. Miller scored uncontested.
"Our seniors (six of whom started) have been fighting for this for four years," Ledbetter said. "It's all I've dreamed about."
Miller prefers the outcome on the field to her nighttime dreams.
"It feels even better than a dream because it's real," she said.
Miller's play on the bases is why her value to the Warriors is so great.
"She's priceless," Sementi said.
Walker pitched a masterful game, retiring the first eight batters and the final 13. Dwight's only base runners came on the back-to-back hits in the third.
"Normally, I know in warmups if it'll be a good game or a bad game," Walker said. "Today, in warmups, I was on. This is one of the better games I've pitched."
Walker (22-3) struck out
five and walked no one. Five of the outs were on first pitches.
"She wasn't throwing as hard as she has," Sementi said. "The wind affected that, but the changeup kept us in the game."
He had to make an in-game change.
"The boys (from Dwight) in the stands picked up our signals and were calling out our pitches," Sementi said. "We had to go to some code words."
The greatest benefit, he said, was a thorough scouting report which came courtesy of Randy Skaggs, whose 2011 state runner-up Schlarman team played Dwight.
"Coach Skaggs gave us an unbelievable scouting report," Sementi said, "on eight of their nine batters."
The Warriors felt no panic in a game in which they didn't score first.
"Having the experience of coming from behind in the other (postseason) games really did help," Miller said.
It was easier, Rogers said, to maintain confidence.
"From going through the process before, we remained a positive team that was determined and gave a great effort," Rogers said. "This is the highlight of my senior year."
Walker had to get through the heart of the Trojans' batting order in the seventh inning, starting with the No. 3 hitter.
With two outs, the No. 5 hitter stroked a ground ball to Ledbetter at shortstop. She made sure to make the play before starting to celebrate.
"One play can turn things," Ledbetter said. "I saw it coming and knew I had to make a good throw to Lexi."
Rogers was ready, whether the toss was good or off-target.
"I was going to do anything I needed to catch it," she said.
For Sementi, it was the third time coaching in a super-sectional game and a breakthrough first state tournament berth. Monday's win also tied the school record for victories in a season. The Warriors are 26-6. The 2008 team was 26-3.
The postgame celebration didn't last as long as the pregame routine, but it was long enough for Carman Comerford to run a victory lap around Eichelberger while toting a flag in school colors.
"Carman is Carman," Sementi said. "She'll do what she wants, and have fun doing it. She's one who can yell at a teammate and five seconds later say something to get them loose."
Comerford has also been one of the hottest hitters in the lineup with 26 runs batted in during the past three weeks.
Tuscola managed just three hits against Dwight's Erin Gaston (24-7). Cleland, who walked twice, had the only hit that didn't come in the fifth inning.
"Lately, we haven't been stringing hits together, but we've played well enough defensively to keep us in games," Sementi said, following the error-free performance against the Trojans.