Ron Havelka has been here many times before.
But seldom, if ever, with a team quite like this.
Havelka's No. 9 seed Downers Grove South Mustangs -- a team starting three freshmen and playing just two seniors -- are back in a sectional final after holding off No. 13 Wheaton Warrenville South 3-2 at Tuesday's Class 4A Neuqua Valley sectional.
The Mustangs (21-10), 4-5 at one point this year, will play the Benet-Downers Grove North winner in Saturday's sectional final. It would be Havelka's fifth sectional title, but he'll savor this win first.
"Unreal, it really is," Havelka said. "It's quite an accomplishment. We've come a long way."
A matchup of surprise regional champs -- Downers Grove South stunned No. 1 Naperville Central Saturday -- was scoreless for three innings, Mustangs freshman Caroline Hedgcock and Tigers senior Sammy Granger matching zeroes.
Caitlyn Daly lined a one-out single for Downers Grove South in the fourth, and Hedgock dropped in a single. With two outs Mustangs junior Kaley Smith took a full-count offering the opposite way for a 2-run double to deep left.
"I kind of felt like they were going to go away, because that's how they were pitching me before," said Smith, a tall lefty. "I like the outside pitches."
The Mustangs tacked on an unearned run in the fifth on Melissa Orton's booming RBI double. In the top half of that inning, Daly made a huge defensive play, throwing a WW South runner out at the plate on Cam Briggs' single to center. It was the second time the Tigers lost a baserunner at the plate.
"I told Daly that throw might have been the biggest play of the game," Havelka said.
It loomed particularly large when WW South (17-16) drew within 3-2 in the sixth with the help of two Mustangs errors sandwiched around a Kim Hayes walk and Jenny Harbakus single.
The Tigers couldn't scratch across a third run. WW South batters didn't strike out once, but hit several hard-hit balls right at Mustangs infielders.
"Their shortstop made I don't know how many plays," Tigers coach Jeff Pawlak said. "We played well. I couldn't be more proud of them. We came up one run short, but what an outstanding game."
Pawlak's Tigers came a long way in a short time.
WW South started its season 3-10, but rebounded to take third in the DuPage Valley Conference and then knocked off Waubonsie Valley and Yorkville to win the program's first regional since 2007.
Granger, one of seven Tigers seniors, was a catalyst to that resurgence. A girl slowed by a back injury throughout her senior year struck out six in a strong final outing.
"I've had Sammy four years as a coach. Nobody competes as hard as that kid," Pawlak said. "She's learned how to keep her poise, and she's matured beyond belief. I said all year we'll go as far as Sammy takes us and and she took us to a sectional. Downers South has a great hitting team. Sammy pitched fantastic today."
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