After falling to eventual Class 4A state runner-up St. Charles East in a regional championship game a year ago, Conant's softball players were well aware of the Saints' ability.
"We were ready for a tough game," said Cougars junior first baseman Hailey Rothstein.
Contact information ( * required )
It turns out the Cougars were as tough as they had been all season.
With Rothstein's towering two-strike, two-out, 3-run homer over the right-field fence in the bottom of the third inning serving as the defining moment, the No. 2-seeded Cougars blanked No. 3 St. Charles 13-0 in five-innings at the Class 4A Bartlett sectional semifinal Wednesday.
Conant (26-5) advanced to Saturday's championship to face top-seeded Glenbard North (28-5). First pitch is tentatively set for 3 p.m., pending IHSA approval.
There was no question about the Cougars' emphatic win on Wednesday. Conant sophomore Sara Neuman (12-2) threw a 2-hitter with 2 strikeouts and no walks.
"Wow, Sara has been awesome," said Cougars veteran coach CathyAnn Smith. "She works so hard every day at practice. She really deserves this win."
Rothstein also deserved her seventh home run and the team's school-record 50th of the season.
"I know in the past Hailey has had a few that just missed going over the fence," Smith said. "So to see this one go over was really nice incentive for her. She has been working real hard. She is a kid who can hit the ball hard."
Rothstein hit her blast after a 2-run bases-loaded single by Alissa Wachal scored Dee Dee Durr (double) and Rachel O'Malley (reached on an error) for a 3-0 lead.
The lefty-hitting Rothstein then doubled the lead with her 3-run shot to the opposite field.
"I hit it solid and had all my mechanics together," she said. "I wasn't concerned about the wind (keeping it in the park) because it felt good off the bat."
And it was a feel-good win for the Cougars.
"The momentum was ridiculous," Rothstein said. "The dugout was so inspirational."
The Cougars collected 11 hits, including 6 singles in the bottom of the fourth when they scored their final 7 runs to make it 13-0.
"That was ugly, not the way we wanted to come out and play," said Saints senior and leadoff batter Tess Hupe. "We definitely did not finish strong but we still accomplished nice things -- 30 wins, a conference championship. The seniors are happy that we went to state last year but we wanted to do it again."
The Saints took their first step last year with a 4-1 win over the same Conant team in the regional championship.
"We beat them last year and I think we kind of underestimated them this time," Hupe added. "But they came to play. Hats off to them.
"We've fallen behind in games before. So we just said we've got to keep making the plays. We tried not to look at the scoreboard."
But Neuman made sure to keep the Saints of the scoreboard, allowing only an infield hit to senior Sarah Collalti with one out in the first inning and a line-drive single to left by classmate Mackenzie Lofgren to lead off the third.
Neuman also had the game-winning RBI that made the score 1-0. Her two-out single to center in the second inning scored courtesy runner Kim Zaucha (running for catcher Dream Aaron, who had led off the inning with an infield single).
"Sara has been in a lot of big games for us," Smith said. "She knows how to control things when she has to. She knew she had to control the outside corners and she worked her butt off at it."
St. Charles coach Kelly Horan started Haley Beno (20-5) on the mound and went with sophomore Jordan Hall for the final ⅔ innings.
"You've got to show up," said Horan, who is only 5 wins away from 150 for her six-year career. "To be honest, I am not upset with the effort or the season.
"I'm just disappointed we played poorly this game. When you play poorly in a sectional game against a great team, you get slaughtered and that's what happened. We played pretty poorly on defense."
"We just didn't play our game," Hupe said. "We didn't go out with our normal attack. We didn't get hits and move runners around the bases. We just didn't play well."
Multiple hitters for the Cougars were DeeDee Durr (2-for-3), Wachal (2-for-3, 4 RBI), Neuman (2-for-2, (2 RBI) and Rothstein (2-for-2, walk, 4 RBI).
The Cougars scored their final run on a single to left by freshman Lauren Grzelak, who also made two nice catches in left field.
After hitting her homer, Rothstein also showed her defensive skills in the top of the next inning with a nice stretch on an infield throw for a putout.
"It definitely felt great coming back from a slump," Rothstein added about her big home run and 2-for-2 day at the plate. "Everyone cheering and getting on base before me just fueled me even more. I think that (home run) was the fastest I've ever run the bases."
The Cougars sure were on the fast course Wednesday in a game that lasted less than 75 minutes.