South Elgin senior Kara Rodriguez did not have much success in her first two at-bats against Elgin junior standout Jennah Perryman Thursday, striking out both times.
But with the game on the line, South Elgin's Female Athlete of the Year showed the determination of a champion and won the game for her team.
Rodriguez lined a clean single up the middle to score Paige Allen from third base with the game-winning run with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning as the Storm beat the Maroons 4-3 in the semifinals of the Class 4A St. Charles North regional. South Elgin beat St. Charles North 4-1 early in the season.
"I just thought, 'This is it. This is where I want to be. This is my spot. It's now or never," said Rodriguez. "I just had to clear my head."
The win sends the second-seeded Storm (18-14) to the 11 a.m. Saturday championship game against the host and top-seeded North Stars (22-5). The winner advances to next week's St. Charles East sectional to play the winner of the Schaumburg regional, either Glenbard North or Schaumburg.
South Elgin roared out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning of Thursday's game, junior Alyssa Buddle cranking a 3-run home run to right-center field after Rodriguez had walked and Cassidy Westlund singled against Elgin freshman Jessica Rago, who was pressed into starting duty when Perryman was held out of the starting lineup by Maroons' coach Chad Dahlman for what he called, "disciplinary reasons."
"I knew Jennah would be coming in to pitch and we had seen (Rago) before so we knew we needed to get ahead early," said Buddle. "I was just looking for my pitch and to get a hit."
Elgin (14-15) got back into the game after leaving 5 runners on base through four innings against Allen. Perryman hit a solo shot to left with two outs in the fifth, then seniors Monica Stockman and Caroline Sobeski jacked back-to-back solo homers in the sixth to tie the game at 3-3.
Meanwhile, the Storm could do nothing against Perryman, who took over for Rago in the circle in the third. She struck out 10 of the first 12 batters she faced before South Elgin finally made contact with three groundouts in the seventh.
But the Maroons' bats also went silent against South Elgin sophomore Rachel Ziemba, who came on for Allen after the 2 homers in the sixth. Ziemba, who had pitched just 5 varsity innings coming into the game, set the Maroons down 1-2-3 after the homers tied the game and allowed just a walk in the top of the seventh before Stockman reached on an error to lead off the eighth and Storm coach Jason Schaal, who is stepping down after the season, turned to Taylor Rees, who earned the win, to take over. Elgin used a fielder's choice on Sobeski's bunt and another fielder's choice to load the bases with one out but Ziemba induced two grounders to escape the inning.
"It was a tough call," said Schaal of the pitching change. "They were starting to catch up with Paige a little and Rachel came in and did very well for someone with five innings of varsity experience. And then Taylor comes in and does a nice job getting groundball after groundball."
With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Allen lined a single to left and took second on an error. Victoria Watt then bunted Allen over to third and with a 2-2 count, Rodriguez lined a Perryman pitch straight up the middle to end the game and send the Storm to its fifth regional championship game in the seven varsity seasons of the program.
"(Perryman) is amazing," Rodriguez said. "She's so good. I just wanted to put the ball in play."
Which, despite the previous two at-bats, Schaal had every belief Rodriguez would.
"She's a four-year varsity player and I couldn't be happier for any young lady on this team as I am for her," Schaal said. "What a great job. I just looked at her and said 'clear head, full heart.' She struggled a little but she never gave up. She always believes in herself and her team and that's what a leader does."
Sobeski had 2 hits for the Maroons, who will be looking for a new coach for next season.
"This game is how our season has been," said Dahlman, who revealed after the game he is stepping down after four seasons. "We have not been able to get the big hits with people on base. I'm proud of our girls for fighting back after being down 3-0 and I'm proud of my three seniors."