The Wauconda softball team may have fallen short of its ultimate goal -- a trip to the state tournament -- but the Bulldogs came away from Monday's Class 3A Elgin supersectional at Judson University with one thing clearly intact: their pride.
Wauconda battled until the final out, but in the end Sterling senior Stephanie Kester's right arm and bat were too much for the Bulldogs. Kester tossed a 5-hitter and went 3-for-3 with a double and a long home run as the Golden Warriors punched their ticket to state with a 3-1 win in a snappy 1 hour, 8 minutes.
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"I'm proud of what our team accomplished this year," said Wauconda senior catcher Alex Kinnamon, who had a first-inning double. "Wauconda softball has grown tremendously. My freshman year I never would have believed that in four years we'd be playing in the supersectional at Judson University."
Sterling (28-3) will play either Mattoon or Alton Marquette in the 12:30 p.m. state semifinal Friday at Eastside Centre in East Peoria. Those two teams play today in the Chatham Glenwood supersectional.
Wauconda finished the best season in school history 23-13.
"This team broke through," said Bulldogs coach Tim Rennels. "It started with belief. They had to believe in themselves, believe that the impossible was possible."
Sterling, which beat Marengo in Saturday's sectional final by scoring the game-winning runs with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning on a 3-run throwing error, jumped ahead Monday 1-0 in the bottom of the first as Kester and Priscilla Aponte put together back-to-back doubles off Wauconda freshman Kayla Wedl.
The Golden Warriors added a run in the second when Darien Bardoner drew a one-out walk, was sacrificed to second by Gabi Trijullo and scored on a single to left field by Cassidy Gillihan, who went to third on an error on the play but was then one of two runners Kinnamon, who hopes to play at Wisconsin-Whitewater next year, picked off third.
"I was real proud of how we played on the field today," Rennels said. "We threw a couple runners out and played very well out there."
Sterling added an insurance run in the sixth on Kester's 240-foot shot to left. Wauconda broke up the shutout in the top of the seventh when senior Maggie LePage doubled with one out and pinch runner Paige Motley scored on Wedl's two-out single.
The Bulldogs had runners in scoring position in the first, fourth and sixth innings and each time Kester, who was a standout on the Sterling girls basketball team that lost to Burlington Central in the sectional finals in February, worked out of the situation.
In the first, Kinnamon doubled with two outs but after Kester hit Lexie Redman with a pitch she got freshman Brooke Sefcik to pop out to end the inning.
Redman, who will play at Aurora University next year, singled with one out in the in the fourth, went to second on Sefcik's single and third on a fielder's choice grounder by Megan Luchowski but Kester got Emily Holub to ground out to first for the third out.
In the sixth, Kester again hit Redman with a pitch with two outs and Sefcik followed with a single but Luchowski grounded out to third to halt that scoring chance.
"She brought it, and at the plate too," said Rennels of Kester, who will play next year at Sauk Valley Community College. "She had both sides of the coin and a great supporting cast. She was a one-woman wrecking crew.
"But we battled back and never gave up and that's Wauconda ball."
Rennels paid tribute to his six seniors, recognizing Kinnamon and Kennedy Wright as four-year varsity players, but also looked to the future.
"Alex and Kennedy have had a long run together," Rennels said. "And we've got some nice talent coming back."