Yes, a victory over Downers Grove South in Saturday's Class 4A Oswego East sectional final would put Naperville Central one game closer to the state finals. And the Redhawks certainly wanted that.
But as important for Naperville Central was the accomplishment of just beating the Mustangs, the sectional's top seed, and the Redhawks did 4-0.
The Redhawks (28-7) advance to Monday's North Central College supersectional against Sandburg, a 2-1 winner over Marist on Saturday in the Reavis sectional final. Game time is 4:30 p.m.
"It's unbelievable. I don't know how to explain the feeling," said Naperville Central sophomore Lindsey Gonzalez. "Beating (Downers South) was the biggest part of our motivation."
The victory ended Naperville Central's three-game losing streak against Downers Grove South that dated back to the 2013 regular season. The Redhawks were particularly looking for redemption after last year's 32-4 effort was halted by the Mustangs in the Batavia regional final.
"I think this game meant so much to us," said winning pitcher Keegan Hayes. "I think we had a chip on our shoulders because of it. Downers Grove South is a good team, and we knew we would have to push hard every inning."
Naperville Central was aggressive at the plate from the opening pitch. Leadoff hitter Maddi Doane skillfully put a groundball out of reach for an infield hit and later, with two out, scored on Lisa Tassi's first of 3 hits of the game, a single to left. Tassi came home on Hayes' first of two singles.
The Redhawks made it 3-0 in the third. With two outs Tassi singled to short center and scored on Megan Nerger's double.
Naperville Central's final run came in the fifth. Lindsey Gonzalez had reached first on a fielder's choice as part of an attempted double play. She moved to second on a wild pitch and to third on Tassi's single to center. Gonzalez scored when Downers South could not get the second out on a rundown.
Hayes and the Naperville Central defense set the Mustangs' lineup down in order the first three innings and retired 17 of the first 18 Downers South batters.
"I changed speeds a lot. I was going outside and coming in with the curve and that worked a lot. Their hitters are aggressive," Hayes said.
Downers South's first hit came in the fourth when Jessica Andree singled to left with two outs. With two outs in the fifth, Kristen Blalek reached on a fielding error and moved to second on Melissa Orton's single to short right.
The Mustangs showed all season that they are capable of racking up runs and hits in a short time and remained a threat until the end. With one out in the seventh, Zahrya McFarland singled to center with Caroline Hedgcock following with a basehit in the same place. Redhawks coach Andy Nussbaum lifted Hayes and put in junior Julie Kestas and she got the final two hitters to look at called third strikes to end the game.
"I knew I had to get the job done and get two outs," Kestas said. "Downers South is an all-around great team, but I knew the fourth time would be the charm for us."
It was the first time this season the Mustangs were shut out.
"We respect their program and team. We knew going into today they would be a tough team. Give credit to their pitcher, and they have a nice defense. They were the better team and we wish them well," said Downers South coach Ron Havelka.
What impressed Nussbaum was how Naperville Central responded to its biggest challenge to date, trying to beat Downers Grove South.
"Keegan was tremendous. Retiring 17 of the first 18 batters is tremendous. Julie is a good, solid pitcher and all our runs came with two outs," he said. "I was really pleased with our focus and perseverance.
"We cleared a big hurdle today, and I would like to keep going."