Trailing Elk Grove 2-0 in the fifth inning of the St. Charles East regional softball final, the Saints' dream of back-to-back appearances in the Class 4A state championship game was on life support.
That is, until two unlikely heroes resuscitated the Saints' state title hopes.
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Catcher Mackenzie Meadows and designated hitter Mackenzie Lofgren were pinch hitters for East's 2013 state runner-up squad. On Saturday, they were two of the Saints' brightest stars.
Meadows, the No. 8 hitter in East's lineup, reached base on a single, then scored when Lofgren, the Saints' No. 9 hitter, belted a two-run homer to tie the game 2-2. The home run breathed new life into East, which plated three more runs in the decisive fifth en route to a 5-2 victory.
The win advanced the Saints (30-6) to the Bartlett sectional, where they will face Conant, the Hoffman Estates regional champion, at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at Bartlett High School. A victory Wednesday would qualify the Saints for the sectional finals on Saturday, June 7. The Rosemont supersectional is June 9, and the state tournament is June 13 and 14 in East Peoria.
Elk Grove (29-8) was just eight outs away from a regional title thanks to a pair of first-inning solo home runs from Becca Maher and Alex Masnica and pitcher Megan Eul (19-7) limiting East's usually potent offense to only three hits through 4 1/3 innings.
Meadows opened the climactic fifth-inning rally by lashing a single to center field. Lofgren then pounded a high fly ball that barely eluded the outstretched glove of Masnica before clearing the left-field fence.
"I wasn't sure if it was going to make it over the fence," Lofgren said of her third home run of the season. "I just ran the bases as hard as I could until I heard all the parents screaming. Then I knew it was a home run." Lofgren added with a laugh, "If (Masnica) had caught the ball, I was going to cry!"
Lofgren's homer energized the Saints. Center fielder Tess Hupe and left fielder Sarah Collalti reached base on back-to-back errors, and Olivia Cheatham lined a single to left field that plated Hupe and gave East a 3-2 lead.
Two batters later, right fielder Katie Kolb's single loaded the bases, and third baseman Alex Latoria drove in Collalti and pinch runner Catherine Crossen with a two-run single.
"I had a good feeling about Mackenzie Lofgren today. She had a good practice swinging at the ball yesterday, so I felt she'd do a great job today," East coach Kelly Horan said. "Mackenzie's home run definitely made the team breathe easier. Then we got to the top of the order, and Tess (. 528 batting average) and Sarah (. 568 BA) did what they do best, get on base, and we got some clutch hits when it counted."
East pitcher Haley Beno took care of the rest. The senior held the Grenadiers scoreless the last six innings of the game after a rough first inning for her 20th win of the season.
Elk Grove mounted one final rally in the sixth, when it had runners on first and second and the tying run at the plate. But Beno (20-4, 1.34 ERA) induced Melissa Picchi into a groundout back to the mound to end the threat.
"Haley is a champion," Lofgren said. "We wouldn't be anywhere without her."
After jumping in front 2-0 early, Elk Grove had chances to expand its lead but stranded a combined six runners in the second to fourth innings. The biggest opportunity came in the fourth. With runners on first and second and one out, Kolb bobbled a fly ball to short right field before securing it after the ball appeared to bounce off the back of second baseman Jordan Hieber, who was standing directly in front of Kolb after converging on the popup. Kolb then fired a throw to Cheatham at second base to double up Sarah Pauscher, whom the umpires ruled had left the base too early when tagging up.
"In the second to fourth innings, we had multiple runners on base with less than two outs. If we could have scored some runs then, it's a different ballgame," Elk Grove coach Ken Grams said. "This whole (Bartlett) sectional is a bear. We had 29 wins, which was only good for a sixth seed, and the seventh and eighth seeds had beaten us in the regular season. But our kids had a great season. 29-8 is a great year."
The Saints' road back to state doesn't get any smoother at the sectional, but Horan thinks the team will play much looser with the regional out of the way.
"I think we needed to get past the regional. It would have been disappointing not to win the regional, to be honest, after getting to state last year and the regular season we had this year," Horan said. "Now, everything else is gravy. We just need to play as hard as we can. Four great teams are left in the sectional."