Softball, more than almost any other sport, is a momentum game. On Saturday, all of that momentum belonged to Southwestern as they defeated Hillsboro 10-0 in five innings to win the Litchfield Sectional championship.
The Piasa Birds, who were held to just one hit in Hillsboro’s 2-0 South Central Conference-clinching win over Southwestern on May 8, would jump out to an early advantage as Mayci Wilderman doubled to left field and Bri Roloff tripled to right to drive her in, just two batters into the game.
Hillsboro starter Kai Hanner would strike out the next batter, but Roloff would score on a wild pitch before Hillsboro could close out the inning.
It looked as if Hillsboro would return the favor as Haley Major led off the bottom of the first with a double, then moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Katie Schaake. But Southwestern ace Bailee Nixon would have other ideas and would set the next two batters down on strikes to preserve the 2-0 lead.
Southwestern would go three up, three down in the second, with Alexis Wolf erasing a leadoff walk to Hannah Nixon when Nixon tried to steal second. Nixon would return the favor, striking out two more Toppers to give her four Ks through two innings.
With Wilderman leading off the third, the Piasa Birds would add another run as the junior outfielder singled and took second on an error. Roloff would pick up her second extra-base hit and RBI of the game, ripping a double to left that plated Wilderman. Roloff would go to third on a wild pitch, but Hanner got the final three outs before she could come home to keep it 3-0.
The Toppers would go down in order in the third, with Nixon picking up two more strikeouts, while Southwestern also only sent three batters to the plate in the fourth, thanks to a heads up 4-3 double play by Sheridan Lyerla, who made a running catch on a pop fly and doubled Hannah Nixon off of first.
Hillsboro would threaten in the fourth, with Hanner reaching on an error and Shelby Houchlei moving her to second on a single. With two on and only one out, Nixon would shut the Toppers down once again, upping her strikeout total to eight through four innings.
Trailing 3-0 going into the fifth, Hillsboro was looking to stop the trend of yielding extra-base hits to the top of the Southwestern lineup. Hanner would do just that, getting Wilderman on a fly ball to right, but Roloff would draw a walk.
The base on balls would be a harbinger of things to come for the Toppers as Southwestern would coax two more walks out of Hanner to load the bases with one out. After grounding out to second and walking in her first two at-bats, Josie Bouillon would slip a double down the first base line, which allowed two runs to score and Southwestern to take a 5-0 lead.
Momentum would be in the Piasa Birds’ favor after that as Bailee Nixon singled home another run, followed by two errors, a ground out and a single that yielded four more Southwestern runs and a 10-0 advantage for the South Central Conference runners-up.
Hillsboro would get a single from Zoe Honchell in the bottom of the fifth in an attempt to extend the game and keep their season alive, but Nixon would get the final three outs to send the Piasa Birds north to the Athens Super Sectional on Monday, May 27.
Nixon gave up just three hits in the win, the double to Major and singles to Houchlei and Honchell, while striking out nine batters. Hanner struck out three in just her fourth defeat of the season.
"They just had their hitting shoes on today and we didn't," Coach Bret Tuetken said after the game. "Anybody can have a bad game at any point in time and we just didn't play our best today, and they capitalized on it. We've had a great season, 28 wins, conference champions, regional champions and made it to the sectional final. I told them to focus on those things, not this last game."
The loss ends the most successful season in the history of the Hillsboro softball program with a record of 28-4 for the Lady Hiltoppers. It also ends a spectacular four-year run by the Class of 2019, who ended their high school careers and softball careers in back-to-back nights.
"We won more games in the last four years than any other four year period and a lot of that has to do with those four that graduated last night," Coach Tuetken said of seniors Kai Hanner, Katie Schaake, Sheridan Lyerla and Jaylaan Milanos.
Hanner, Schaake and Lyerla in particular have been key pieces of the Lady Hiltopper program since coming in as freshmen.
"We're going to miss them as players, as well as leaders and people," Tuetken said. "For those three, softball has been their main sport. They just work their tails off at it and it's showed the last four years for our program."
After 86 wins in 114 games, the seniors' time at Hillsboro is complete, but their time on the softball diamond isn't. Both Hanner and Schaake have signed to play in college, at Saint Louis University and Lincoln Land Community College respectively, while Tuetken said Lyerla hasn't ruled out trying out for Lincoln Land as well.
Their leadership and skill will be missed, but the Toppers will bring back a roster loaded with experience.
"Some of them are going to have to step up a little bit and take different roles," said Coach Tuetken.
If they can find their place in those new roles, don't rule out another long postseason run for the Lady Hiltoppers next season as well.
May 25 at Litchfield
Class 2A Sectional Championship
Southwestern 201 07 10 8 1
Hillsboro 000 00 0 3 3
Southwestern IP R ER H K BB
W-B. Nixon 5 0 0 3 9 0
Hillsboro IP R ER H K BB
L-Hanner 5 7 5 8 3 6
Multiple Hits: Southwestern - Bri Roloff (2-2, 2R, 2RBI), Mayci Wilderman (2-3, 2R). 2B: Southwestern - Mayci Wilderman 1, Bri Roloff 1; Hillsboro - Haley Major 1. 3B: Southwestern - Bri Roloff 1.
Records: Hillsboro (28-4); Southwestern (24-2).