Softball: St. Charles North's comeback comes up a run short
Isabella Wilkerson and Lyndsey Grein beamed as they posed for a picture together they likely won't soon forget steps away from the pitching circle.
Putting their feelings into words wouldn't take just a few words or two.
Their smiles, collective team cheers, celebration and a plaque following Lincoln-Way Central's 5-4 victory over St. Charles North in the Class 4A supersectional on Monday probably conveyed plenty.
"I don't know if I could put that [my feelings] in a couple words for you, but it's awesome," said Grein, the Lincoln-Way Central junior, following her complete game, six-strikeout performance. "This team is awesome. It's a team sport; it's a team win. I love each and every one of these girls as if they were my own family."
The North Stars (14-8) battled back from an initial 5-0 deficit beginning in the fourth inning after a two-run homer by Julia Larson, but were ultimately unable to get the tying run the rest of the way.
North Stars junior Ashlee Chantos battled with multiple foul balls in the final at-bat, but was coaxed into a groundout to ensure the Knights' first trip to state since 2008, the season they were state champions.
"We [made] eye contact and we [knew] we were both zoned in," said Wilkerson, a senior, on the heart-racing final at-bat. "I [knew] that she was ready and I'm confident in everything that she can do, so I [knew] she was going to get her on the last one, for sure."
"It's a family. We say it before and after each and every game," said Grein, a Virginia Tech recruit. "We treat each other like family. I think this is our goal from the beginning of the season and to be here. It's like 'Keep going; keep pushing. Two more games left' ... to speak to Bella, she's family, man. She's awesome. She's so incredibly talented and she's an amazing athlete and even better teammate."
Lincoln-Way Central (29-3) spoiled the North Stars' bid for their first state appearance since 2011, when St. Charles North took second in Class 4A.
LWC will now face the Minooka in a state semifinal matchup on Thursday at 12:30 p.m. in Peoria.
"I wish I could tell you [what is so special about this team]," LWC coach Jeff Tarala said. "They're just some wonderful girls ...[Wilkerson] has been with us for four years. It's, just, some girls have it, you know what I mean? They'll do anything you want them to do."
"They were sold out to Lincoln-Way Central softball. That's what it takes. We've had some really, really good teams in the past that haven't done this," Tarala continued. "You need those special players like that ... [Grein was also] just incredible."
Wilkerson got the Knights on the board after hitting into a fielder's choice to bring home their courtesy runner for the 1-0 lead in the first. Grace Erickson hit an RBI single in the second, and was followed two batters later by Grein's two-run homer for the 4-0 LWC lead.
Kathryn Ponton hit an RBI sacrifice fly in the third to put the Knights up 5-0, but the North Stars rallied with Larson's home run to break up the no-hitter in the fourth and trailed 5-2.
Chantos doubled in a run in the fifth and Larson tacked on an RBI single to make it 5-4, but a groundout ended the threat for the North Stars.
"That's just the game that we wanted to be in," Larson said. "We started off [down] 5-0 and we came back. We had a chance in the last inning and couldn't execute."
Grein shut the door the rest of the way, surrendering just a single in the sixth for the North Stars lone base runner to reach safely.
North Stars sophomore pitcher Ava Goettel struck out three in her complete game performance.
"Everybody in that dugout gave us everything they had within their role," North Stars coach Tom Poulin said. "They're all very good softball players and we asked them to play a role in this tournament. They stepped up; they excelled in that role, whether it was one at-bat, or in the circle or at a position defensively that maybe they don't play."
"There's not too many teams; there's nobody that I'm more proud of as far as during my coaching career than this group for what they've been able to accomplish this year and what they overcame," Poulin continued.
The North Stars graduate one senior, Anastasia Pappas, as she'll move onto West Virginia Wesleyan and play softball collegiately.
"Probably just the attitude that every girl had," Pappas said of what she'll cherish most about competing as a North Star. "I mean, even Julia, our third baseman, she's like 'We need to relax; we can't let this hurt us' and she's the one that put up most of our runs."
"I just like the family atmosphere," Pappas continued. "I think it's a good team to play for."