EAST PEORIA -- Mackenzie Sanchez and the Alleman softball team merrily walked 200 yards in the rain Saturday evening.|
With each stride from Mizuno Field, site of the state championship game, to East Peoria's Eastside Centre building for the trophy presentation, Sanchez got both wetter and more emotional, thinking back to all of the steps leading up to this final jaunt in a grand journey.
"I was just soaking it all in. I couldn't believe we were actually state champions,'' Sanchez said after Alleman topped Teutopolis, 9-3, in a rain-soaked, lightning-delayed Class 2A final.
"It still hasn't really hit me. When I was a freshman, I used to dream of winning state. Now, this is my senior year and my last game. What a way to finish.''
The dream scenario was made even sweeter by Sanchez again figuring in a postseason comeback for the Pioneers (32-6).
A day after hitting a late go-ahead grand slam for the Western Big 6 Conference champs, Alleman's four-year starter at shortstop ripped a tie-breaking, two-run home run in the fifth inning to push the Pioneers in front to stay, 5-3.
Lexi Ferrari, Sanchez's keystone combo at second base, tied the game 3 with an inside-the-park home run to lead off that frame moments earlier.
"Lexi's homer really shifted our momentum,'' Sanchez said. "Without that, I'm not sure we could have come back this time.''
Teutopolis (29-5) rallied from an early 2-0 deficit for a 3-2 lead on one swing of the bat -- Julie Wente's three-run homer in the fourth -- one of only four hits allowed by Alleman starter Dakota Stout (16-4).
However, with a rain shower spitting more and more precipitation from the third inning on, Alleman headed into the home half of the fifth needing a run, worried the game could be called early because of the conditions.
A weather forecast of heavy rain Saturday evening already forced an early start to the contest, with the Class 1A and 2A third-place games played at an adjoining field.
"I was just hoping to get on base,'' Ferrari said. "But when I saw the right fielder dive and miss, I was thinking third (base) all of the way. But then (coach Mike Ebner) kept waving me on. I kind of hesitated at third. I was wondering what he was thinking.''
Once there, Ferrari saw the same thing as her coach -- Teutopolis had failed to hit the cutoff man and she had a chance to score.
"We always joke with her that she looks faster than she really is,'' Alleman first baseman Molly Ethington said with a laugh. "We were all cheering her on, and she was running as hard as she could, so when she made it, it was a big sigh of relief. To get even again gave us new life. It made it easier for the rest of us.''
An inning later, Ferrari added a two-run double, and Ethington followed with a two-out, two-run homer to help seal the Pioneers sixth state title, and first since 1998.
"When I saw it go out, I was full of joy,'' said Ethington, whose RBI single in the first gave Alleman the early lead. "But I was even happier for `Mack.' She was so great this weekend. It was great to see a senior step up like that. It was her time to shine.''
Emily Hoffman pitched the final two innings, overcoming a 43-minute lightning delay in the top of the seventh, and harder rain after the re-start, to nail down her sixth save.
With the win, Ebner joined his brother Steve as a state title-winning coach. His older sibling, the retiring Rock Island coach, won 1985's Class AA crown at Alleman.
The Pioneers have placed nine times now at state, with Mike Ebner part of the previous five as an assistant coach starting in 1991, but Saturday marked his first in eight seasons as Alleman's head coach.
"I'm just so happy for these girls,'' Ebner said. "During the walk over here, I couldn't even tell it was raining.''