The eye black, applied heavily and artfully smeared on the faces of Lake Zurich's softball players, featured a glittery blend of black, blue and white.
"We take great pride in our eye black," senior third baseman Maria Schroeder said with a laugh. "It takes the whole bus ride to do."
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It took the Bears much less time to set the tone in Thursday's North Suburban Conference championship game at Wauconda. Schroeder scored all the way from first base on a two-out single to center field by Mallory Parsons, and Lake Zurich had the lead for good en route to a 3-1 win.
Lake Zurich (23-4) last won the NSC title in 2011, when Schroeder was a freshman starter on varsity.
"It feels ready good, especially with this team," Schroeder said. "We have 11 seniors and we started it all together freshman year. We had really high expectations this year. When we came into conference, we said, 'We should win conference.' "
"It's just really exciting," said senior center fielder Vivian Juarez, who nearly robbed Wauconda's Angie Exline of a home run. "We definitely deserve it."
The Bears sparkled as much as their game faces, and it started immediately as the Bradley-bound Schroeder led off the game against hard-throwing Kayla Wedl with a single. After back-to-back strikeouts, Parsons singled. Schroeder made an aggressive turn around second base, and when the ball was bobbled in the outfield, she raced to third and made another aggressive turn. Wauconda was nonchalant in getting the ball back into the infield, and Schroeder raced home and scored easily.
"Just trying to take extra bases early in the game, especially when we have two outs," Schroeder said. "I guess (coach Amanda Rodriguez) was telling me to stop, but I thought she was sending me. So I thought I was listening to her, but I guess I wasn't."
"When she first glanced at me, I was telling her to go," Rodriguez said. "Then when they threw the ball in, I was like, 'Stop,' but she was already taking off. I know she's really aggressive and she slides really well, so I thinking, 'Maybe she'll make it.' "
Wauconda coach Tim Rennels chose to compliment his opponent.
"(Lake Zurich) played heads-up," Rennels said Schroeder's bold baserunning. "That's something we work on -- throwing to '2,' hold the runner at '1,' not throw behind the runner at third. They read it like a book and sent her home. I was just as surprised looking up."
Lake Zurich added two more runs in the second after Rachel Dawson led off with a single. On a comeback grounder to Wedl, Wauconda couldn't make the play at second, as Dawson appeared to injure her ankle on the slide, causing her to leave the game. A bunt by Katie Brown loaded the bases before Schroeder (3-for-3) lifted a sacrifice fly. Maddie Minneci (2-for-3) followed with an RBI single, before Wedl (8 hits, 7 strikeouts, 3 walks) got a strikeout and groundout to prevent further damage.
Wauconda (24-8), which was playing in the NSC championship game for the first time, scored its lone run with two out in the sixth when the red-hot Exline homered to center field off Bears starter Olivia Schneider. Juarez extended her arm over the fence and momentarily had the ball, before it popped out and landed on the other side.
"I'm running to first and I'm watching it, and I'm like, 'You got to be kidding,' " said Exline, who also doubled and finished 3-for-4.
Schneider, Lake Zurich's senior lefty, went the distance in the circle. She allowed just 4 hits, struck out six and walked three.
"She's been getting a lot of first-pitch strikes, which she struggled with a little bit at the beginning of the year," Rodriguez said. "That makes me excited because I want her to get ahead of hitters, and she's starting to do it."
Wauconda pinch hitter Savannah Mitchell reached on an error with one out in the seventh. But Schneider induced a pair of groudballs on home-run threats Wedl and Taylor McCarthy to end it.
"We hit the ball hard," Rennels said. "A couple of bad at-bats, maybe poor decisions. But otherwise, sparkling 'D' (by Lake Zurich) at third, short a couple of plays, right field. They almost stole our lone run over the fence. Real good defensive bunch. They took away opportunities for us and took away base runners."
Wauconda won't lament its loss. The Bulldogs are looking to make another lengthy postseason run after winning a Class 3A sectional championship last year.
"We've played well all season and we still have the rest of our season to look forward to," Exline said. "This was just a little bump in the road."