One strike away from a piece of a conference title.
One strike away from a much sought win over a cross-town rival who in recent years has made its name as one of the state's premier softball programs.
One strike away from avenging a 10-0 loss to that same rival last week.
One strike away from all of that was where St. Charles East found itself clinging to a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning Tuesday on their home field as the North Stars loaded the bases with two outs.
Unfortunately for the Saints, Abby Howlett stood between them and everything that strike would have meant. And that one last strike never arrived.
After fouling off five pitches from Saints starter Haley Beno, Howlett ripped a 2-run single off shortstop Alexi Perez's glove on a 3-2 pitch to put the North Stars ahead 4-3.
St. Charles North (19-5, 15-2 in the UEC River) added an insurance run to cap the 4-run seventh inning, then Sabrina Rabin retired the Saints in order in the bottom of the seventh inning for a 5-3 victory and the North Stars' fifth straight conference championship.
"We did it to Naperville Central, we knew we could do this," Rabin said of the team's comeback Saturday to hand the Redhawks their first loss. "We still had a chance. We were only 2 runs behind. It's not over till the last out.
"St. Charles East is a really good team and they are not going to give it to you easily. Just playing as a team we were able to get it together."
Maybe if it was any other hitter in the St. Charles North lineup the Saints (25-5, 14-4) could have escaped the seventh-inning jam. But Howlett has been killing the ball all spring. She entered the game with a .547 average and 33 RBI after three 4-hit games last week.
"I was thinking just get a hit and I can hit her (Beno) and to relax because it's just like any other at-bat," Howlett said. "I was relaxed at the beginning. As the count got deeper I was a little nervous but I was still pretty relaxed."
Trailing 3-1 to start the seventh, North Stars coach Tom Poulin pinch-hit freshman Samantha Hausl to start the inning. Hausl responded with a single, and No. 9 hitter Andrea Beal coaxed a walk on a 3-2 pitch to put the tying runs on base and bring up leadoff hitter Rabin.
Rabin's RBI single -- her third hit in three at-bats -- drew the North Stars within 3-2 and put runners on first and third with no outs. On the next pitch Kaitlyn Waslawski tried to bunt home Beal but Beno made a perfect throw to catcher Shelby Holtz to barely get Beal at the plate.
Beno hit Micky Goetz to load the bases, then retired Emily Brodner on a pop-up to third base to leave the bases loaded with two outs. Beno quickly got ahead of Howlett 1-2, but the sophomore first basemen kept fouling off pitches, then took a 2-2 pitch just off the plate before fouling off another pitch and then lining the game-winner the opposite way.
"It's really great they (the bottom of the order) can start the rally for us," Howlett said. "It's really good they can pull through. We're all happy and excited. Big goal (conference) for us and we're just happy we could accomplish it today."
The North Stars got off to a quick start in the first inning as Rabin and Waslawski both singled and stole bases before Goetz plated Rabin with a sacrifice fly. The Saints turned a 5-3-2 double play to end the inning and stay within 1-0.
After stranding five runners the first three innings, the Saints took the lead with a 2-run fourth inning on three straight doubles to left field by Kate Peterburs, Sarah Collalti -- in her first game back in the starting lineup -- and Olivia Cheatam.
St. Charles East played small ball to score its third run in the sixth inning. An infield single by Peterburs followed by Collalti's sacrifice bunt, a wild pitch and Cheatham's sacrifice fly to center put the Saints up 3-1 going to the seventh -- a lead that proved to be too little.
"Not much to say," Saints coach Kelly Horan said. "They beat us. We were a strike away. We'll keep it in perspective. We know what we need to do a little better to gear up for the postseason. Sure we're disappointed, but it's only the fifth loss."
Perez, Peterburs and Cheatham all had 2 hits for the Saints while Beno (16-4) picked up three of her six strikeouts looking to earn Poulin's praise.
"Beno was incredible today," Poulin said. "She kept us off-balance. We don't strike out looking much."
"I thought this game was much more indicative of who we are," Horan said. "We had a lot of opportunities and didn't quite cash in. We were a strike away at the end or a couple hits away."
In addition to her 3 hits, 2 runs and 2 stolen bases, in the circle Rabin fanned four and walked one while scattering 8 hits to improve to 15-3. Howlett also had 2 hits.
"You wouldn't expect anything else between these two teams. You expect something that comes down to the last at-bat," said Poulin whose team could see the Saints a third time in the Class 4A St. Charles East sectional.
"This is good, the conference championship is one of our goals, but we have bigger goals. I'm not trying to downplay this, it was a great win and they are one of the best teams we've seen all year, but we want to have some postseason success."