If any softball program understands how difficult it is to win a conference championship, it is Naperville Central.
Then how'd the Redhawks make it look so easy?
Ending a 24-year title drought in remarkably stress-free fashion, No. 1 Naperville Central beat No. 5 Glenbard North 6-0 on Wednesday in Naperville to clinch at least a share of the program's first DuPage Valley Conference championship since 1989.
Setting a new regular-season win mark, the Redhawks (27-0, 11-0) allowed coach Andy Nussbaum to relax and savor a grail his teams have come so close to realizing, several times over.
"It's kind of emblematic of our season," Nussbaum said of the relatively one-sided win. "A little surprising that it was 6-0, but we've been surprising the whole year."
In recent years the DVC race has ultimately come down to the season's final day. Last year, Naperville Central had a shot to grab at least a share on the last day, only to get swept at West Chicago.
With three games left to play, the Redhawks are eliminating any suspense.
"The mentality of this team, it's different than any team I've ever been a part of. I think that starts with the work we put in during the off-season," said Juliet Tassi, one of two senior starters. "Everyone saw what happened last year."
Similar to many games this year, Naperville Central ground down an opponent with a lineup that keeps the pressure on -- and with a pitcher in Keegan Hayes who seems impervious to pressure.
The Redhawks jumped ahead right off the bat. Maddi Doane was hit by a pitch leading off the first, Tassi sacrificed her to second and after an error Doane scored on a passed ball.
Lindsay Gonzalez tripled to lead off the third and scored on Tassi's squeeze bunt while the throw went wide of first. Lisa Tassi doubled in the third run, and Laura Dierking singled in Lisa Tassi to make it 4-0.
"Methodical execution," Nussbaum said, putting it perfectly. "We've never been spectacular, but our execution has been consistently solid. That's why we're able to put the opponent under constant pressure."
Given the lead, Hayes (18-0) knew what to do with it. Hayes, who beat Glenbard North 2-1 in Carol Stream last month, scattered 6 hits, striking out five. Most telling of Hayes' poise under pressure, Glenbard North was 0-for-8 against her with runners in scoring position.
"We're really happy, but we're definitely not settling for this," Hayes said. "We all think we can go far. This is a good start."
A day after committing a most unusual 4 errors in an eight-inning win at Wheaton North, the Redhawks were back to playing mistake-free defense behind Hayes.
"This is the best defensive team I've ever had," said Nussbaum, who won his 1,100th career game at Naperville Central combining softball and basketball. "Things that look like they're going to be trouble, we make look easy."
Defending DVC champ Glenbard North (17-4, 8-3) never seemed to find its game, needing a win to for all intents and purposes maintain a shot at a piece of the title.
The Panthers committed 3 errors, not including a mental miscue on Tassi's squeeze attempt, and failed to muster much offense against Hayes. Amanda Manton and Ashley Stiver both went 2-for-3 with a double for the Panthers.
"We just lacked intensity," Panthers coach Josh Sanew said. "You get a chance to become the first team to knock off the No. 1 team in the state, you need to come out with a little more fire. We didn't play well in any phases of the game today. The better team beat us. They're on top of the conference for a reason."
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