Softball: Michela Barbanente, Lake Park upset '22 state champ St. Charles North to win first sectional title since 2008
Tom Mazzie was initially lost for words for the briefest of moments.
Mazzie, the longtime Lake Park varsity softball coach, had elated pandemonium unfolding behind him crowding around home plate.
The story practically writes itself: Lake Park, who had not defeated St. Charles North since May 19, 2021, upset the defending Class 4A state champions on their home turf in an emotional, gutsy 3-2 sectional final.
It is the program's first sectional title since 2008, the year it eventually placed third.
"As far as the group goes: Shoot, I can't believe I'm choked up about it," said Mazzie, who was an assistant on the 2008 team and took over as the head coach the following season. "It's been the best team I've ever coached."
Senior shortstop and Penn State commit, Michela Barbanente -- responsible for the go-ahead RBI infield single in the fifth for the 3-1 Lancers lead and two defensive plays to save probable runs -- was quick to credit the team's talent and cohesiveness to achieve a historic chapter in her final year of high school softball season.
"We have so much talent, and I think people like to underrate us, but there is something about our bond; something about what we do together that makes us so much stronger than any level of talent could possibly put us on," Barbanente said. "Everybody here works so hard.
"I haven't heard one piece of negativity," she said. "St. Charles North had our number, what, the past seven times that I've been here, it's crazy. To beat them and get the last laugh right now, it's huge. My team, I cannot say enough about them and the bond ... you're only as strong as your weakest link and we do not have a weak link. There's no weak link in this Lancers squad."
The Lancers face Whitney Young in Monday's supersectional hosted at St. Charles North at 4:30 p.m.
Lake Park (27-11-1) took a 1-0 lead off North Stars senior ace Ava Goettel in the second inning on Ari O'Connell's two-out RBI single to bring in JD Dowling. St. Charles North (22-8) answered back on Leigh VandeHei's two-out bases-loaded RBI single off Lancers starter Mia Giammarese.
Giammarese was lifted in favor of Mia Savage, as it was the Lancers' plan to only pitch her through the order once. North Stars senior third baseman Julia Larson promptly smacked a short hopper seemingly destined for the outfield gap, but Barbanente's athletic diving scoop and force out at second stopped the immediate threat.
"We don't see a better offensive team than St. Charles North," Barbanente said. "Mia Savage, and Mia G. for that matter, they came in here and battled. It was strictly competing; it was them vs. the batter and I cannot give them more props because they work so hard. They're in it for our team, too, and they're always like, 'We got your back, no matter what'."
The Lancers threatened again in the fifth inning, beginning with a leadoff Dowling walk and an ensuing single by Giammarese to advance her to third. Goettel rebounded with her fourth strikeout to O'Connell, but Barbanente legged out an infield RBI single to break the stalemate for the 2-1 Lancers lead. Cailynn Gdowski followed with a single to chase Goettel and bring in ace relief pitcher, Paige Murray.
With the bases loaded, Kylie Pytlak hit an insurance sacrifice fly to make it 3-1, but the North Stars escaped further damage after a squeeze play was thwarted to end the inning.
Barbanente was responsible for all three defensive outs in the fifth: First, an over-the-shoulder grab on a popout with her back to the plate and squeezing two popouts.
The North Stars' made the seventh inning interesting, beginning with a one-out walk by Margo Geary. VandeHei reached on a fielder's choice, and Larson followed with an RBI single to make it 3-2. But Savage coaxed a check-swing groundout to lift Lake Park further into its own historic run.
St. Charles North narrowly missed its third consecutive sectional title, a nod to the contributions of many; including in no particular order: Seniors VandeHei, Goettel, Larson, Geary, Sophia Olman, Megan Bauwens, AnnaMarie Vivirito and Eric Lillwitz.
" ... This one, it's going to sting for a while because this is such a special group," North Stars coach Tom Poulin said. "You don't want to not have time tomorrow together. You want to continue to spend time with this group. But, if I was going to have anybody move on [besides us], it was going to be Mazzie. He's a class act."