Softball: Sterling denies Antioch a trip to state
All season long, Antioch has been crushing softballs, and most opponents, on its way to 32 wins.
That came to a crashing halt at the Class 3A Kaneland supersectional on Monday against Sterling and ace pitcher Elizabeth Palumbo.
Palumbo continued a magical postseason by tossing a 3-hitter and leading the Golden Warriors to a 2-0 victory. Sterling (17-7) will now take on Highland at the state tournament Thursday at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex in Peoria.
It will be the third trip to state for Sterling, which finished fourth in 2013 and third in 2014.
"It feels so amazing right now," Sterling's Riley Dittmar said. "For it being my senior year and being able to go out like this, I'm so excited, and I'm so glad I get to be here right now."
The Golden Warriors get to play in Peoria largely because of the left arm of Palumbo (14-4), who improved to 5-0 this postseason and has been virtually unhittable. She has allowed just two earned runs in 35 postseason innings.
Antioch (32-6) had clubbed 58 home runs and averaged nearly 11 runs per game. On Monday, the Sequoits managed just 3 hits.
"We haven't seen a power pitcher from the left side," Antioch coach Anthony Rocco said. "We've seen a couple of weaker kids, but no one stronger like her. The bad thing we did was we swung at a lot of first pitches, and it was a lot of easy pop-ups. The fourth inning, we stopped swinging at that pitch, we loaded the bases, but we just didn't get the big hit we needed."
Gabby Debevec, a junior shortstop who has committed to play softball at Illinois, was also impressed with Palumbo.
"We haven't faced many pitchers like her all season," Debevec said. "She was really good. She had a screwball that went outside to righties, and it had a lot of spin. That was troublesome for most of us."
Antioch's main threat came in the fourth inning. Debevec drew a one-out walk, then Schuler looped a base hit down the right-field line. Debevec was erased at third on a fielder's choice grounder, but then Emily Brecht reached on an infield single that caromed off the glove of Sterling third baseman Ellie Leigh.
With the bases loaded and two outs, Palumbo struck out Hailey Webb swinging, preserving a 0-0 tie at the time.
"It was for sure nerve-wracking when the bases were loaded, but I just trusted my defense at that point," Palumbo said. "I knew that if [Antioch] hit the ball, they had my back. That's trusting my spin and trusting my catcher. I just tried to stay positive."
Brecht lashed a one-out triple in the seventh inning to give Antioch some life. Palumbo struck out Webb for the second out, then induced a lazy fly ball to center that was caught by the Golden Warriors' Lauren Jacobs to end the game.
Sterling did all of its damage in the top of the sixth inning against Antioch freshman right-hander Schuler, who was also tough in the circle with just 4 hits allowed. The only extra-base hit Schuler gave up was on her first pitch of the sixth, as Dittmar smashed a double to the fence in left-center. Dittmar walked and struck out her first two times at bat.
"I realized right at the beginning of the game she was throwing me outside almost every single pitch," Dittmar said. "My third at-bat when I came up, I was looking for that first outside strike, and I took it out to left-center. I was really glad I was able to start off the inning like that."
The next batter, Jacobs, laid down a sacrifice bunt that was bobbled by the Antioch third baseman for an error, putting runners at the corners with nobody out.
That brought Amayia Hernandez to the plate. She fouled off a pitch, took a ball, then laid down a perfectly placed bunt up the first-base line that she beat out for a single and drove in Dittmar with game's first run. Jacobs went to third on the play, and Hernandez went to second.
"It was right there where I could handle it and get it down," Hernandez said.
Palumbo grounded out to shortstop Debevec to drive in Jacobs with Sterling's second run, and Palumbo was able to make that lead stand up.
In addition to the 3 hits allowed, she walked one and struck out five, and was backed by an error-free defense."