Neuqua Valley coach Melissa Wilson loves the excitement of softball this time of year, and Saturday's regional title game delivered more than its share of great drama and even a walkoff home run by a freshman who was not sure she'd even play due to an injury.
What the game did not deliver for the Wildcats, however, was a victory. No. 3-seeded Downers Grove North rallied from a 3-0 deficit to escape with a memorable 4-3 victory after No. 7 hitter Zoe Varsbergs stunned the home crowd with an opposite-field home run to left with one out in the bottom of the seventh and the score tied 3-3.
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Varsbergs stole the show on a day when her status was questionable because of a foot injury, and on a day when Neuqua Valley strung together four straight two-out hits to build a 3-0 third-inning lead on the Trojans' Dale Ryndak, who entered the contest with a 21-1 record and an ERA of 0.10.
"I think every inning we played we made good contact and that is exactly what we wanted to do. That is exactly what we worked on," said Wilson, whose team closed the season 20-13. "Downers Grove North is an excellent team and they executed when they needed to. That's playoff softball for you. That's why this is my favorite time of the year … when NCAA is on TV and (high school) playoffs. No game is over until the last inning. That's what makes me love being a coach and also makes me love the game so much."
For Varsbergs, it is a day she'll love looking back on for a long time. Not only did her walkoff homer lift the Trojans (28-2-1) to a memorable regional crown, but it was her second long ball of the day and capped a perfect 3-for-3 day at the plate that included a double, two runs scored and 3 RBI.
"My approach at the plate was to just smack the ball as hard as I can," said the freshman first baseman, who had missed the last week and a half with a stress fracture. "I was really mad that Jaclyn got hurt again because she had a concussion earlier. I just wanted to hit it for her."
Varsbergs' extra motivation came after Trojans shortstop Jaclyn Pasakarnis suffered a broken nose in the Wildcats' big third inning when a hard ball off the bat of Wildcat designated hitter Colleen Hill took a bad hop and hit her in the face. The bloodied shortstop left the game but returned three innings later sporting a protective mask.
Hill's hit was one of five that Neuqua recorded in the third, with catcher Haleigh Yerkes starting the big inning with a double down the left-field line. After a strikeout and a hardline out, Jamie O'Brien, Dominica Lange, Hill and Jessie Boudreau each delivered clutch hits to surprise Ryndak and the Trojans, who rarely see teams make such solid contact on the Arizona State-bound hurler.
"This week we were really working on quicker hands and just focusing on reacting to the ball because she is a very quick pitcher," said Lange, a junior third baseman.
"I hope she does well at Arizona State. I think we went up there with intensity and some ferocity and hoping to get some hits and that's what we did."
While the Wildcats were making Ryndak sweat a bit, their pitcher Megan Bilgri was tossing herself a nice 18th birthday party for four-plus innings before Varsbergs cut the lead to 3-2 in the fifth with a home run to center that came after an error allowed her sister Emma Varsbergs to reach safely.
The Trojans then drew even in the sixth on a two-out single by Ali Woitovich that set the stage for the freshman hero to end the game in the bottom of the seventh.
"There's nothing to be really upset about here. As coach says, there has to be a loser," said Lange, who made a great catch in the sixth on a foul ball up against the fence that at the time helped preserve a 3-2 Neuqua lead. "We're going to come back hungry (next year)."