In a game riddled by defensive miscues, it was fitting that the winning run scored on an error.
Junior Courtni Neubauer was awarded home plate with the winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning when an errant throw went into the dugout Saturday as Burlington Central's softball team defeated Kaneland 6-5 in the championship game of the Class 3A Burlington Central regional.
The regional title is the 17th in program history and puts the Rockets (23-9) opposite Sterling in a 4:30 p.m. Marengo sectional semifinal on Tuesday. Sterling beat Central 7-5 in eight innings on May 17 in the championship game if the IC Catholic tournament, a game that was played in poor weather conditions on a turf field. Sterling finished fourth in Class 3A last year.
"The difference between good teams and great teams is that great teams can pick each other up and get the job done," said Central assistant coach Erica Maisto, who acted as the Rockets' interim head coach for Saturday's game while her dad and BC head coach, Wade, attended the college graduation of Erica's younger sister, Jordan, at Elmhurst College.
"I'm so proud of the way they beared down today and got the job done."
The top-seeded Rockets had to put together a rally in the bottom of the seventh after allowing No. 2 seed Kaneland (20-12) to score 3 runs in the top of the inning and tie the game.
Neubauer (2-for-3, 2 runs scored) led off the bottom of the seventh by reaching on one of Kaneland's 7 errors in the game. She stole second and then, with one out, was caught in a rundown on Emily Kisch's groundball. But Neubauer's alert baserunning and speed caused a Kaneland throw to hit her in the arm and end up in the Central dugout, sending her home with the winning run.
"It feels pretty amazing," said Neubauer of scoring the winning run. "I just knew I had to get on base and do my part."
Central put Kaneland and junior right-hander Angie Morrow, who transferred to Kaneland from Central after last season, in a 4-0 hole in the bottom of the first inning. The Knights had 3 errors in the inning, allowing Kisch to rip a 2-run double and Kassie Gaylord a 2-run single.
Kaneland battled back to score twice in the third, junior catcher Paige Kuefler driving home Morgan Weber and Lanie Callaghan, who had each singled.
Central added what appeared to be an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth, using another Kaneland error and bunt singles from Becca Gerke and Christina Ahlers to take a commanding 5-2 lead into the top of the seventh.
But Kaneland fought back. Freshman pinch-hitter Rachel Goress led off with a single to center field and leadoff hitter Weber drew a walk. Callaghan then laid down a bunt and a Central throwing error allowed Goress to score to make it 5-3. Kuefler (3-for-3) then delivered a game-tying double to right-center and she represented the go-ahead run with no outs.
The Central coaching staff then turned to senior left-hander Brooke Gaylord to relieve Kisch in the circle. Gaylord struck out Meg Cohrs and got Lexi Roach to ground out to first, but that sent Kuefler to third. Gaylord reached back for a little extra and struck out Hayley Contorno to leave Kuefler stranded 60 feet away and set the Rockets up to win the game in the bottom of the seventh.
"I just knew I needed to come in and not let Emily's hard great work go to waste," said Gaylord. "I'm just so happy. I think our team is peaking at the right time and we can only go up from here."
"Brooke came in and shut them down," said Erica Maisto, herself the most decorated pitcher in Central history. "She did exactly what I asked her to do. Courtni did an outstanding job of baserunning and Kisch pitched a really good game. We really executed when we needed to. The girls stepped up when it was crunchtime."
Morrow allowed just 7 hits and had 5 strikeouts and no walks, while allowing no earned runs for the Knights.
"I'm proud of every single one of our players," said Kuefler. "It's going to be hard not seeing the seniors next year. Angie did an amazing job today. I just love catching for her."
But in the end, the Knights' defense failed against Burlington Central's aggressive and versatile offense.
"They're going to win the game when we give up six unearned runs," said Kaneland coach Brian Willis. "We just gave them too many chances. We showed a lot of character coming back and Angie pitched well. They really only hit one ball hard all day and if we had made a play in that (first) inning (Kisch) wouldn't have even come up."