Spartans walk off as winners
EAST PEORIA — The game wasn't the one St. Joseph-Ogden wanted to play, but the outcome was just fine.
"We wanted to be in the championship game, but this was like our championship game," senior Stephanie Canfield said, "and I wanted to win our last game."
Thanks to Canfield's clutch two-out single in the top of the seventh — on an at-bat that would have ended the season with a loss had she gotten out — SJ-O rallied to post a 5-2 nine- inning triumph against Sherrard in Saturday's Class 2A IHSA third-place game at EastSide Centre.
"Today, there were two winners, and we played our hearts out and came out as winners," senior Shelby Franzen said.
That it took two additional innings was just a bonus, said Elizabeth Everingham, who concluded her prep career with a five-hit, no-walk performance for an area-record 32nd victory of the year.
"It's nice to have a battle to end the season," Everingham said. "It makes it seem more victorious than a blowout."
Against an opponent that sent nine .300 batters to the plate, SJ-O coach Randy Wolken said special praise was deserving for the right-handed Everingham.
"That is a great hitting team, and to hold them as well as she did, I'd say was the key to the game," Wolken said.
SJ-O (41-1) secured the win by returning to what it has traditionally done best during Wolken's 33-year coaching tenure.
"The bunting game has always been the best part of St. Joe softball," Canfield said. "The past couple games we struggled. Today, it was a lot better."
The season's final inning illustrated the Spartans' prowess at the short game.
For the third time in the game, senior leadoff batter Abbey McElwee beat out a bunt.
"All three were perfect bunts," Wolken said. "They weren't going to throw her out."
She advanced on a passed ball before Canfield bunted her way on base, sending McElwee to third.
The next three Spartans — the third, fourth and fifth batters in the lineup — all executed suicide squeezes. Everingham, Mickaela Fleming and Abby Immke each drove in runs with their bunts.
Immke's bunt came on a two-strike pitch. All three of the suicide bunts moved a teammate to third and resulted in the bunter winding up on second base without a play being made.
"We had to turn the page from yesterday," said Franzen, who delivered two of SJ-O's nine bunt hits. "To establish the short game, we had to get on base."
The ability to bunt is a prerequisite to starting for the Spartans.
"We work on it from the first practice," Wolken said. "Every girl up there was very confident."
Before the ninth inning became a reality, Canfield had to deliver in the clutch.
SJ-O trailed 2-1 entering the top of the seventh. Samantha Fleming led off with her second hit and pinch runner Victoria Roberts was sacrificed to second by Molly McElwee. After Abbey McElwee was a strikeout victim, the Spartans needed Canfield to deliver to extend their season.
"It was definitely a lot of pressure, but I'm confident under pressure," Canfield said. "I tried to stay as relaxed as possible."
The state's career hits leader belted an opposite-field single into left field and Roberts — one of seven seniors who played in the game — scored the tying run easily, creating the 2-2 deadlock.
"Pressure doesn't bother Stephanie," Wolken said. "That was a huge hit to keep the game going."
Everingham had retired six consecutive Tigers entering the bottom of the ninth. Leadoff batter Megan Kissner reached on the Spartans' lone error but was erased on a double play started by late-game freshman replacement Molly McElwee at shortstop.
The final Sherrard batter also hit a grounder to the shortstop and she made the toss to Immke at first base to complete the best season (recordwise) in SJ-O history.
"I was rolling the dice (replacing starting shortstop Mady Poulter with McElwee), but it was a good gamble," Wolken said. "Molly is a great freshman player. She started 15 or 20 games for us."
The first three hitters in the Spartans' lineup — Abbey McElwee, Canfield and Everingham — all finished with three hits. Immke, Franzen and Samantha Fleming each added two hits.
Canfield started the hit parade with an opening-inning single as the first batter after a 54-minute rain delay.
Wolken confirmed after the game he'll be back as head coach in 2013 to add to his state-record 859 career wins.
"We had a tremendous year, with the best team I've ever had, and I look forward to coming back," said Wolken, who has coached SJ-O every year it has fielded a softball team. "This year was a lot of fun."
His entire staff is expected to return with the exception of Aaron Allen, a fifth-year assistant who plans to follow the team as a spectator.
"I'll be in right field watching," Allen said.
The state trophy was the fourth overall for the Spartans in softball and the third in the past eight years. The school was fourth in 1989, third in 2005 and won the championship in 2006.
Immke and Everingham will cherish the manner in which the season ended.
The key, Immke said, was "we came with a positive attitude."
There was no carryover from having their winning streak ended Friday after 40 games.
"Yesterday, we were upset, but this was a new day, and we went out and had fun," Everingham said.
Just how much fun was revealed by the miles of smiles.
"This is way better," Immke said, "than losing."
Just the facts
At EastSide Centre
St. Joseph-Ogden (41-1) 5, Sherrard (29-7) 2, nine innings, third place
Nashville (35-4) 6, Williamsville (37-4) 2, championship