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TOLONO — Unity softball is squarely in familiar territory.
The Rockets picked up a 3-0 victory against Marshall in a Class 2A sectional semifinal game on Tuesday night to draw within two wins of returning to the IHSA state tournament for the third year in a row.
Defense, power and pitching — the last of which was supplied by sophomore Lindy Bates — propelled the Rockets on their home field.
“Lindy has been pitching tremendously for us, but (on Tuesday), our defense really showed up,” Unity coach Aimee Davis said. “One mistake on the infield, essentially wins the ball game. We made really good plays.”
Host Unity (29-9) was the road team in Tuesday’s contest, which was delayed about an hour as St. Anthony (22-3) earned a 2-1 win against Bloomington Central Catholic to set up a meeting with the Rockets in Saturday’s 11 a.m. title game.
That oddity allowed Bates — the second batter of the game — to blast a solo home run to center field that ignited a strong turnout of fans who lined the entire field.
“The crowd was amazing,” Bates said. “We knew we wanted to get out on top. My first at-bat, I just wanted to get a hit for my team, get on, because I knew my teammates would have my back and get me around.”
Bates’ pitching kept Rockets fans engaged as they congregated down the right-field line and in front of open tailgates in the outfield. Marshall mustered just four hits while striking out three times.
Only once did the Lions bring more than four batters to the plate in a single frame. Bates surrendered a walk to Libby McFarland and a single to Haley McGuire in the second inning before recording three straight outs.
“My defense is working really well lately,” Bates said. “We’re just playing our best ball, so I have all my trust in them.”
Her first-inning homer also served to take the pressure off the Rockets almost immediately.
“It definitely probably helped her a little bit with the pressure and getting ahead early,” Unity shortstop Ruby Tarr said. “It was just a great moment.”
McGuire turned in six innings of solid work in the circle for Marshall (24-7), as she allowed five hits and fanned three batters of her own.
But her final inning of work saw her concede a leadoff single to Jenna Adkins before Bates nearly connected on her second home run of the game. Lions center fielder Adi Scott tracked it down with feet to spare.
Marshall wasn’t as lucky one batter later when Tarr went yard to left field to plate the final two runs of the game and provide the Rockets with a measure of insurance.
“I’m always trying to hit it where it’s pitched,” Tarr said. “I had a 3-1 count and I knew she was going to come at me. So I just took it where it was pitched and (McGuire) gave me a good pitch to hit.”
Tarr helped record a pair of outs at shortstop to back up Bates’ effort in the circle.
“We had her back the entire time and our offense ultimately came through at the end when it mattered,” Tarr said.
Marshall’s loss marked an end to an historic season for the Lions, who captured their first regional championship and won more than 20 games for the first in program history.
Marshall did so with just five seniors on their roster.
“Next year, we’ll reload and have a pretty good team,” Marshall coach Ryan McGuire said. “I already talked to (Davis) over there and hopefully we get to come up here and play them again. They’ve got a good program over here and, you know, nothing to hang your head about.”
The big stage isn’t as fresh to Unity, which will face St. Anthony on Saturday with a super-sectional appearance on the line.
Seeing large crowds and facing high stakes have given the Rockets plenty to draw from as they face more clutch situations.
“It’s a lot less nerve-racking,” Tarr said. “We come into the game knowing it’s just a ball game at the end of the day, just try to do our best and do what we know how to do.”
The winner of Saturday’s St. Anthony-Unity contest will face Auburn or Quincy Notre Dame on May 29 in Decatur with a trip to the Class 2A state finals on the line.
“It’s going to be a good one,” Davis said. “We beat BCC, took St. Anthony into extra innings, but we’re going to be ready. We’ve got to play a really good game and we’ve got to be ready to hit a little bit.”