Victoria Watt picked an excellent time to experience a couple of personal firsts for her South Elgin softball team.
The senior second baseman opened the Class 4A St. Charles North regional championship game against the host North Stars on Saturday morning with her first home run of the season.
In the sixth inning, she slid home safely for the first time as part of a suicide squeeze bunt that lifted the No. 2 seed Storm to its first regional title in four years with a 2-1 victory over top-seeded St. Charles North.
South Elgin (19-14) will play Glenbard North Wednesday in the St. Charles East sectional semifinals. The Panthers beat Schaumburg 8-6 Saturday to win the Schaumburg regional.
"I was just ready to attack and find my pitch, and I got it," Watt said of her leadoff blast that clanked the top of the fence before bounding over for a quick 1-0 lead off North Star hurler Sabrina Rabin.
"It was kind of a surprise, and a little luck, too," Watt said of having just enough oomph in her swing to have the ball clear the fence, rather than bounce back onto the field.
The suicide squeeze play that ultimately won the game also may have had a measure of luck.
"I think it was supposed to be a pitchout," Watt said.
But freshman Cassidy Westlund reached out and laid down a perfect bunt in front of the plate. North Star catcher Emily Brodner grabbed it and lunged back toward the plate, but Watt slid on the far side of the plate and slapped it with her hand to avoid the tag.
"We both executed what we had to do, and I just hit the outside of the plate," Watt said.
It marked the second time this season that South Elgin was able to topple St. Charles North (22-6).
Storm pitcher Paige Allen was able to hang on for the victory, with the help of some sterling defensive plays in the bottom of the seventh.
Of course, Watt was involved in that action as well, making a nifty backhanded grab of a sharp grounder off the bat of Samantha Hausl headed toward the outfield and firing it to Taylor Rees, who also made a splendid scoop of the ball in the dirt at first base.
But South Elgin wasn't cleared for its celebration until Mallory Mecklenburg pulled down Andrea Beal's towering drive before slamming into the center field fence to end the game.
"Our coach was saying no doubles, and that's why I wanted to play (deep) and make sure of because we had to get to everything," Mecklenburg said. "The warning track really helped me out, and I am glad I had it, because it was really nerve-wracking."
What made it especially nerve-wracking was that Rabin was waiting on deck for the North Stars and South Elgin wanted nothing to do with facing her with the potential tying run on base.
"Sabrina Rabin is a really good hitter and we didn't want her to come up in that inning," Mecklenburg said.
For South Elgin coach Jason Schaal, the victory extends his career because the Storm moves onto sectional play. Schaal will be leaving South Elgin for an new teaching position at Grayslake Central when the season ends.
"It was two excellent teams battling, and I have all of the respect in the world for (St. Charles North coach) Tom Poulin and what he's accomplished," Schaal said. "But today we were able to score one more run. It was a big win for us and I am really proud of it."
Schaal credited Watt, who had 2 of the Storm's 3 hits in the game, with paving the way for the win, especially with her foot speed on the squeeze play.
"It was a straight suicide squeeze from the very beginning," Schaal said. "Victoria is one of the smartest base runners I have ever had the opportunity to coach, and Cassidy has done a great job of getting bunts down all year."
The loss was a bitter pill to swallow for the North Stars, who also endured a 4-1 loss to the Storm earlier in the season.
"We had a great year, but it ended too soon for our liking," Poulin said. "When you get beat, you get beat and we haven't been able to figure out Paige Allen twice now, so you have to take your hats off and say congratulations."
Even Allen wasn't sure what kind of magic she has been able to muster for the North Stars, other than good old-fashioned adrenaline.
"I think we are always pumped to play St. Charles North," Allen said. "It's always a big game for us and we all really wanted this, we wanted to win so bad."
With no seniors on this year's team, Poulin is already looking forward to next year.
"We're really proud of what we've accomplished without a senior on the team," Poulin said. "The challenges we presented them; they overcame just about every one of them."
Watching South Elgin celebrate a regional title on the North Stars' field should serve as motivation for next year, Poulin said.
"They will have plenty of motivation, but you just have to be sure they understand how fragile the postseason is and how the lessons you learn during the course of the season need to be put into action when you get into the postseason."