SJ-O softball at the Final Four: Far from perfect
EAST PEORIA — Caught looking.
Some would say St. Joseph-Ogden's unbeaten and top-ranked softball team was looking ahead.
Whether that speculation is accurate, there's no doubt the Spartans spent too much time looking at the pitches thrown by Nashville freshman Maci Ingram.
SJ-O suffered its first loss of the season on Friday in a Class 2A IHSA state semifinal game at East Side Centre. Nashville scored all of its runs in a 5-2 triumph in the first two innings.
Eight Spartans took called third strikes, including at least one player in each of the final six innings. Overall, six SJ-O players were caught looking and every starter fanned at least once against Ingram (19-2).
"Even ones down the middle, we were watching," senior Stephanie Canfield said.
Junior Mickaela Fleming — who supplied the Spartans' offense with a two-run homer in the fourth following a triple by Elizabeth Everingham — had a bird's eye view of the strike zone.
When on defense, she was the SJ-O catcher.
"We couldn't adjust to the strike zone," Fleming said. "We were shocked by what it looked like."
What hurt the Spartans when they were batting — a wide strike zone — was beneficial when the team was in the field.
"We settled into his zone and took advantage of the wide corners," Fleming said.
Everingham settled down after a rocky start — when the fourth Nashville batter she faced in the top of the first inning belted a home run, SJ-O trailed 3-0 — to retire 14 of the final 15 Hornets who batted.
"I told them it would be a dogfight, but I don't know if they listened," SJ-O coach Randy Wolken said. "We didn't seem totally ready and that's my fault.
"We took too many called third strikes. You'd think after one or two, we'd make an adjustment. I was very disappointed with some of the efforts made at the plate."
Wolken didn't believe pressure from a season-long 40-game winning streak was a factor, though he said the previous successes might have led to a false sense of security.
"Maybe we thought we'd show up and win," Wolken said. "We didn't have that sense of urgency. When they went up 3-0, that was shock treatment.
"Our girls might have underestimated their pitcher and thought, 'we'll hit her,' and she controlled us. I don't think we were tight, but we might have been overconfident."
The Spartans held an edge in hits, 5-3, Everingham, who doubled in her final at-bat, was the only player with more than one hit in the semifinal contest.
"We didn't hit. We didn't do our short game (bunting and slapping)," Everingham said. "We came out timid."
Everingham finished with six strikeouts, but also walked three.
SJ-O committed both of the game's errors. They came on the first balls hit in both the first and second inning. Both runners scored.
"An error on the very first ball hit, we have not had that," Wolken said. "That gave me a bad feeling."
The second-inning error was on a popup where freshman shortstop Mady Poulter collided with senior third baseman Emily Griswell and the ball fell to the dirt. Two outs later, Nashville scored its final two runs.
SJ-O broke the shutout in the fourth on Fleming's 10th home run of the season, but 12 of the final 13 Spartans who batted were retired, four on calls by the home plate umpire.
"We learned a lot about ourselves today," Wolken said, "but those are hard lessons to learn."