Four days after clinching its first conference title in program history, the softball season came to a stunning and abrupt end for Steeleville on Tuesday.
Elverado freshman Kaity Lewis hit a first-inning home run on her 15th birthday and sophomore Allie Whittington struck out 14 in a three-hitter, leading the Falcons to a 3-1 upset of the state-ranked Lady Warriors in the semifinals of their own Class 1A regional.
Steeleville entered the game ranked second in Class 1A by the Illinois Coaches Association and was a No. 1 seed in the Trico Sub-sectional. Elverado was seeded seventh with a 10-10 record.
"I'm excited, there's no other feeling," said Elverado coach Donette Wheatley. "When you knock off a team that good so all I can say is 'wow.'"
Lewis hit her homer - a solo shot - with one out in the first, sending the ball into the trees bordering the fence in left-center field. The early lead seemed to have a resounding effect on the Lady Warriors, who trailed 1-0 until Elverado added two runs in the fifth.
"I think that was big because I'm not sure how many times (Steeleville's) been down in a game, but that got them down," Wheatley said of Lewis's homer. "Right from the get-go. That was a huge hit."
From that point, Whittington - who also qualified for the IHSA Class 1A state track meet in the 400-meter run - worked her magic, striking out the side in the second and third innings and three out of the four batters in the fourth after Mackenzie Pim reached on a two-out error.
"She's been running a little bit of track, something she's never done before," Wheatley said of Whittington, who also struck out 14 in Elverado's 11-0 win over Grayville on Monday. "And it has built her legs up so much.
"She's got so much stamina right now, she's just bringing the heat. She's almost untouchable."
As the game wore on, Steeleville grew increasingly frustrated and changed tactics in the fourth with a bunt-first approach.
It had some initial success as Karley Kothe reached on a bunt single in the fifth and later scored on an error by third baseman Zoe Maple on a pickoff throw from catcher Cheradon Lively.
The Lady Warriors had a chance to close the gap further in the sixth when Lexi Middendorf hit a two-out double and stole third, while Pim drew a walk to put runners at the corners.
But Sydnie Furman flew out to deep center field to end the inning.
"It's definitely a team loss," said Steeleville coach Andy Gerlach. "I put a lot of blame on my part. Are we fully prepared for playing that game? I don't know.
"As a team, maybe we took it lightly, but I preached about being in every pitch of every play."
The Lady Warriors had their last and best chance to tie the game in the bottom of the seventh when Julia Niepert hit a one-out single to center field and Katie Myers walked to bring the go-ahead run to the plate.
A sacrifice bunt by Haley Troue moved the runners over for Sydney Hood, the team's leading hitter.
Hood worked a 1-2 count and fouled off two more pitches before a pitch from Whittington got away from Lively, which caused Niepert to break for home.
But Lively recovered quickly and flipped the ball to Whittington for the tag on Niepert to end the game.
Gerlach was asked if he gave Niepert the green light on the play.
"No, but she got a little jump, but that's not the winning run or wasn't the winning play," he said. "We definitely had different opportunities to have plays (and) we just didn't come through.
"We had spots where he had our No. 5 hitter up, or we had spots where we had our leadoff hitter who's been batting the best all year with two runners on."
But the play at home took the bat out of Hood's hands and the Lady Warriors will now head into a long offseason. Steeleville will lose two seniors - Troue and Furman - to graduation, but could bring everybody else back for 2018.
"The whole thing is I had confidence we were coming back and winning that game," Gerlach said. "In my mindset, I thought we were going to come back and get that, but Whittington threw a heck of a game."