Up. Down. And up again in a matters of seconds.
That was how the bottom of the third inning went for No. 2 seed St. Francis in its Class 3A sectional semifinal softball contest with No. 3 Riverside-Brookfield on Friday. With the score tied 2-2, the Spartans loaded the bases with no outs, and the players and their fans were fired up.
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But when Bulldogs shortstop Kelly Ely stabbed a soft liner off the bat of Carley Pasquale and then doubled a runner off third base on the play, things were looking down for St. Francis (29-3). But on the very next pitch Spartans freshman Alyssa Dittrich ripped a 2-run double to the gap in left center that proved to be the winning runs -- and only runs the rest of the way -- as St. Francis prevailed 4-2 to earn a shot at top-seeded Glenbard South on Saturday in Glen Ellyn.
"Psychologically, we needed that," St. Francis coach Ralph Remus said of Dittrich's pick-me-up hit. "That was a big play. If we don't score with nobody out and the bases loaded then they get all pumped up."
Instead, the Spartans had a 4-2 lead and from there their defense and pitcher Maggie Remus (25-1) made the lead stand up, with a little help from some wind in the top of the fifth. R-B (26-8), still trailing 4-2, had two outs and a runner on third when Becky Mantel appeared to get all of a Maggie Remus offering, but the blast came up just short of the wall and landed harmlessly in the glove of St. Francis left fielder Danielle Vitagliano.
It was one of many plays the Spartans made in the field to protect the lead, including big catches in the infield on smashes to shortstop Alyssa Fernandez and second baseman Alyssa Germanos, and a 6-4-3 double play started by Fernandez and turned nicely by Germanos in the seventh.
"Every minute we went down we needed to go back up," said Fernandez, who helped the Spartans grab a 2-0 lead in the first with an RBI double that was followed by a throwing error that allowed her to score on the play as well. "That's what this team's great at. If we go down we get right back up."
Remus allowed single runs to the Bulldogs in the second and third innings to tie the game, but that was all R-B could get from there. Coach John Vermillion, whose team has won nine regionals in the last 10 years but has yet to get past the sectional, tipped his cap to the Spartans defense for making the plays.
"We've been snake-bitten when we get the sectional," he said. "Most of the balls we hit were hard hit, but right at them. It's a tough loss to take, but they made the plays."
Coach Remus is hoping his team can get past a solid Raiders squad to claim its first sectional crown since 2005.
"It's all about defense and we work hard on that," said Remus, who did not face Glenbard South this season due to a rainout.
"(The Raiders) beat us 2-1 last year in the sectional semis in the bottom of the seventh. It was a tough one, but they're a good team. We'll try again now."