Softball: Huntley cruises to regional championship
ROCKTON -- A few early-season losses put Huntley's softball team at a disadvantage of playing the Class 4A regional championship game on the road, despite winning 27 of its past 28 games.
It truly didn't matter where the No. 3-seeded Red Raiders were playing Friday, as they beat No. 2-seeded Hononegah, 12-1, in five innings at Swanson Park to win their sixth straight regional title. Huntley (31-6) advances to face Jacobs (23-6) in the sectional semifinals at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The Raiders started the season 3-5, which included a 3-0 loss to Hononegah, but have gone 28-1 since.
"Everything we've done this season is to prepare us for the postseason," said Huntley coach Mark Petryniec, whose Raiders have 30-plus wins in each of the past three seasons. "Obviously, we're not 100% happy with the [situation] we put ourselves in and the seed we got, but this team is road tested. You can check the miles. Us getting on a bus and going on the road is nothing new to these girls."
Huntley's Briana Bower, a Mississippi State commit, continued her season-long dominance, throwing a five-inning, no-hitter with nine strikeouts and two walks. She issued walks to the first two batters in the bottom of the fourth inning, with Joscelyn Bennett scoring Hononegah's only run on a groundout by Briella Sendele. That was the only time the Indians (21-6) put runners on base.
Bower now has 391 strikeouts, surpassing the 353 she had as a sophomore when the Raiders won the Class 4A state title. Indians coach Dan Bohn said Bower looked stronger than the first time the teams met on April 21.
"We played [Bower] her sophomore year and then twice this year. As the season goes on, she seems to be a lot stronger," Bohn said. "Earlier this year it was cold and she was not throwing nearly as hard as she was today."
Bower said it felt good to be playing in the postseason spotlight again.
"It feels right," Bower said. "There were a lot of people here and we played a really good team. It was good to feel that energy again. Right now, I feel pretty good. Our hitting is clicking. Our defense has been solid. I think we'll go pretty far if we work together as a unit, play for each other and not worry about what other people say."
Huntley's Madi Smith and Bower each hit home runs off Indians pitcher Braxton Brown. After Marley Reicher drove in Katie Mitchell on a groundout in the top of the first to give the Raiders a 1-0 lead, Smith swatted a two-run homer over the center-field fence in the second to push the lead to 3-0.
It was Smith's first homer of the season.
"I just wanted to get a hit to get some more runs in," said Smith, who also scored two runs. "When I felt it off the bat, I didn't really know it was gone, but then everyone started screaming, 'It's out! It's out!' It was fun. I loved it. I feel like it brought everybody's energy up. It was a really good start for us."
Mitchell (3 for 4, three runs, RBI) and Reicher (2 for 4, two RBIs) both had singles to start the third. The next batter, Bower, brought them both home with a three-run home run to left. The Raiders went on to score five runs in the third on five hits. Jori Heard (2 for 3, two runs) had an RBI double to score Clara Hudgens (2 for 3, two runs), and Heard scored on a throwing error after she stole third.
Huntley added a single run in the fourth and three in the fifth. In the bottom of the fifth, Bower struck out two of the final three batters to seal the win.
"We're just so happy to have this opportunity again," Petryniec said. "Not being able to defend our crown, and then seeing all of those girls who didn't have a chance to play [last year] come out and support us in the stands today, our girls play for those girls. That's what their focus is."