When Stacey Stepek took over as Hampshire's head softball coach last season, she made it clear one of her top goals was to bring a winning attitude to a program that had struggled over the years to be a consistent winner.
Consider Monday a huge step in that direction.
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Junior Haley Widmayer fired a 2-hitter and the Whip-Purs made 4 first-inning runs stand up in a 4-1 win at Crystal Lake Central that clinched Hampshire's first conference championship in softball since the 1981 team shared the title in the now-defunct Big Eight Conference.
The Fox Valley Conference Fox Division leaders can claim the division title outright with a win Tuesday at Grayslake North. A loss Tuesday will leave the Whips in a tie with Grayslake Central, and even though Hampshire beat the Rams twice, the FVC doesn't award division titles based on head-to-head competition.
The win was also Hampshire's 19th of the season, its most since winning 18 in 2008. A 20th win on Tuesday would be the program's first 20-win season since 2003.
"I'm lucky to have the group I have," Stepek said. "I have great kids who get along with each other and trust each other. They work hard, they're respectful and they're committed to this."
The Whips (19-11, 10-1), who lost to CL Central 5-1 last Wednesday, which was also the last time they played, talked in their pregame huddle about coming out and jumping on Tigers' right-hander Megan Mahaffy right away, then they did just that.
Widmayer beat out an infield single to lead off the game, Erin Doyle beat out a bunt, Aly Snider walked and Peyton DeChant's hard-hit fielder's choice grounder scored Widmayer. Doyle scooted home on a passed ball, then Ellie Lapi drove a single off the center field fence to drive in courtesy runner Sara Finn and DeChant and stake Widmayer to a 4-0 lead.
"That helped so much," Widmayer said of the 4-run cushion. "It took the pressure off."
"We worked hard on adapting to pitches Mahaffy made last Wednesday and they made the adjustments today against a good pitcher," Stepek said. "We were a lot more alert on defense and ready for the ball today. It felt good to bounce back and get one from them."
CLC's only 2 hits came in the second inning and neither left the infield. Savannah Frank beat out a roller and after Maddie Helm sacrificed, Kelly Iwamoto also beat out a roller, sending Frank to third. Angela Letto drew a walk and Frank beat the throw home on Monica Menes' grounder.
After that, Widmayer simply owned the Tigers (14-10, 7-4). She retired 17 of the final 18 batters she faced, one reaching on a harmless two-out error in the fourth. Widmayer sat down the final 10 in a row. She had 6 strikeouts on the day and only 1 walk in running her season record to 17-9.
"I was changing up real good and keeping them off balance," she said.
Stepek couldn't be more pleased with Widmayer's maturation.
"She really saw little (pitching) time last year so I have to give her props," Stepek said. "She's really stepped it up this year. I'm proud of her and proud of all of them."
To Widmayer, the rise from also-ran to conference champion has been about team chemistry as much as anything.
"We call came together as a team," she said. "We bonded so well and worked so well together. It hasn't been one person. It's everybody. We have a much better attitude, we all trust each other, everyone wants to be here and we have the drive."
Drive that took the Whip-Purs to a conference championship.