A one-and-done candidate considering it opened the state tournament with Zion-Benton, McHenry's softball team relies on a one-play-at-a-time approach.
At Warren on Saturday, one swing from freshman Kristin Koepke got the young Warriors rolling, and when the Class 4A regional final was over, a 1 seed was done.
Behind Koepke's pitching and a 15-hit attack, which also included long home runs by Koepke and power-hitting catcher Mikaela Mitsch, No. 3 McHenry stunned top-seeded Warren 6-1 Saturday.
"They're great hitters. Holy cow," Carri McGahan, who coached her final game for the Blue Devils, said of the Warriors. "I wish we wouldn't have had to play them until the sectional final, because that's really where that talent should be."
The IHSA's geographic placement of teams in the regionals did Warren no favors. While the Blue Devils (31-5-1) were the top team in Lake County, McHenry (24-3) is one of the best squads in McHenry County, which features the likes of Class 3A power Marengo, Cary-Grove and Prairie Ridge.
The Warriors had rallied to edge second-seeded Zion-Benton 2-1 in their regional semifinal.
"We actually had T-shirts made that say, 'You're only as good as your next play.' We literally take it one at a time," McHenry coach John DiFrancesca said after his girls earned a berth in Wednesday's Cary-Grove sectional semifinal against Carmel. "It has to be. So if there's an error, if there's a base hit, so what. It's like, 'Next.' That's what Kristin does on the mound."
Koepke, one of three freshman starters for McHenry, gave herself a 1-0 lead in the top of the first by pulling a Jana Wagner pitch over the fence in left field. The Warriors added one more run in the second when Danielle Walsh's bloop single down the right-field line scored Kara Ekx.
Koepke nearly homered again in the third, settling for an RBI double off the fence. The Warriors also got run-scoring singles from Mitsch and Ekx in the inning to stretch their lead to 5-0.
"We wanted to come out hitting first," Mitsch said. "Our Zion game, that was a tough game for us. They came out swinging first. I just wanted to come out here and start hitting the ball. Kristin got a rocket her first at-bat. That (homer) was a nice hit. We kind of fed off that and just kept on rolling."
Wagner was done after 3 innings, having allowed 8 hits. All 5 runs were earned.
"Jana did a good job," McGahan said of the sophomore, who pitched a 3-hit shutout in the North Suburban Conference championship game. "We knew that this particular umpire does not call too many high pitches (for strikes), and that's her primary location with her riseball or her outside dropball pitch."
Koepke struck out only one, but she didn't walk a batter. And while the right-hander surrendered 10 hits, the only one for extra bases was a two-out double in the second by Sam Belletini. Belletini, batting in the No. 8 spot, was 3-for-3. Jill Fox went 3-for-4 for Warren, and Anna Balch had 2 singles in three trips.
"She wasn't throwing anything really special," Fox said of Koepke. "We just took too long to hit her. We waited until the end of the game to get the good solid hits. But everything that was near her she just picked up. It's hard."
Koepke helped herself in the field by recording 4 assists.
"That's the best game she's played defensively off the mound," DiFrancesca said. "She's just solid. She has the heart of a champion."
Mitsch, who came into the game batting over .600, smashed her 13th homer of the season leading off the fifth against Jessica Demski.
The Heidelberg University-bound Mitsch and Kelsey Cichocki both finished 4-for-4 for McHenry. Koepke and Walsh added 2 hits apiece.
McGahan is stepping down after six seasons to become a mom.
"Just her upbeat mentality (is what will be missed) and always being positive with us, no matter what happens," Fox said. "It's going to be definitely a different feeling."
Sophomore call-up Jenny Carpenter, who sang the national anthem, finished up in the circle for Warren by pitching 2 scoreless innings.
"She's got a killer change," McGahan said.
With a new coach to be named, change is coming for Warren.