CHAMPAIGN — The wind whipped through north Champaign on Tuesday afternoon. Hard enough at times to move not just the flag, but the flag pole situated just past the center field fence at St. Thomas More's softball field.
That persistent wind blowing in from right field meant balls in play turned into adventures in fielding in the Class 1A sectional semifinal between Salt Fork and Heyworth. Right up until the very last one.
Storm first baseman Hailey Hunter's two-out, seventh-inning fly ball ultimately fell just out of reach of Heyworth right fielder Paige Schiffman. Carlee Richardson was running on contact and scored, and Salt Fork (23-6) had a 3-2 walk-off win to reach Friday's sectional championship game against the winner of today's 4:30 p.m. semifinal between Villa Grove (22-12) and Fisher (20-10).
"It was a good hit on Hailey's part," Salt Fork coach Elizabeth Craft said. "She put a solid bat on the ball, and we had two outs so we were going. I knew that it was a little tricky with the wind out there and that might have helped us a little bit, but solid hit on her part.
"She did good. She did what she's supposed to do. ... I don't think in history we've ever gotten past this game, so to win that way was pretty special for the girls and pretty memorable."
Tuesday's win was a continuation of the progress the Salt Fork seniors have made in their careers. The Storm lost in the 2016 regional semifinal when those seniors were freshmen. Then came a regional championship loss in 2017 and a sectional semifinal loss last spring.
"For us to be able to go past the first round of sectionals is something amazing," said Hunter, one of eight seniors on the Salt Fork roster. "We're just the type of team that does not give up. We have to fight to the very last inning, very last out and very last at bat."
"We all wanted it," fellow senior Jordan Jones added. "I felt like we fought for each other. I have no words because it's so good."
Hunter's walk-off made it possible. The Salt Fork catcher fouled off multiple pitches from Heyworth starter Adyson Slayback before putting what turned out to be the winner in play — even if she was sure the wind was going to carry the ball right into Schiffman's glove.
"I was going, 'Please either go over or just drop it,'" Hunter said was her thought process running toward first base. "I was just hoping for something — just a base hit. That's all I needed to get my runner to score."
Richardson — another senior — got Salt Fork's rally going with a one-out walk. Jones followed with a single, which provided the Storm starting pitcher a bit of redemption after striking out in her first three at-bats of the game.
Then came Hunter.
"I honestly thought it was a home run until I got home and then Coach E threw up her hands and said ballgame," said Jones, who had her head down and was running on contact. "It was so awesome. It was amazing actually. This is school history — breaking it — so it's really good."
Jones threw a complete game and gave up two runs on nine hits while striking out five and walking none. Sophomore right fielder Mackenzie Russell got the Storm on the board with a solo home run in the second inning, powering the first pitch she saw in the game over the left-center field fence — both opposite field and against the wind. Hunter also scored in the sixth to tie the game at 2 when Riley Kotcher reached on an error.
That gives the Storm plenty of momentum heading into Friday's sectional championship game.
"We've really put a lot of focus into (a postseason run)," Jones said. "There's eight seniors. We want to make history like we just did, and we just want to play together and stick together as long as we can because we've been playing together since we were little."