For a team with 21 home runs this season, it might be a little odd to have to rely on the little things to pick up a victory, but the Hillsboro Lady Hiltoppers showed they are just as adept at small ball in their 2-1 eighth inning win over Gillespie on Saturday, May 18, which gave Hillsboro its first softball regional title since 2006.
“We have some girls that have some power and can hit the ball out of the park, but when the wind is blowing in like this, you’re not going to be able to do that,” Coach Bret Tuetken said after the game, which gave him his fourth softball regional championship. “You gotta play a lot of small ball.”
And Hillsboro did just that in the eighth inning, with the game still tied at 1-1. Alexis Wolff drew a walk to lead off the eighth inning, then moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Zoe Honchell, who got the dribbler down the first base line with two strikes. Riley Hemken would then rip a ground ball to second base, which allowed Wolff to go to third base, putting the winning run 60 feet away.
The Toppers’ leadoff hitter, Haley Major, would be at the plate, and while Major is tied for the team lead in homers, with seven, Tuetken had another thought for his sophomore third baseman.
“I told Maj, ‘Don’t take the bunt out of your game right here. I’ve already talked to Alexis and told her to get a good jump if she sees you squaring. Just get it down and run as fast as you can to first. And we’ll take our chances,’” Tuetken said of what would be the final at-bat of the game. “I didn’t know if she’d do it again after she didn’t get the first one down, but I’m sure glad she did though.”
After missing on her first attempt at getting the bunt down, Major swung away for strike two, before getting down the game winning hit, which allowed Wolff to come in from third.
“Zoe Honchell got a huge bunt down to get Alexis into scoring position to start with, then Riley Hemken hit a ball to the right side that got her to third and gave us that opportunity,” Tuetken said. “I just told them to string some at-bats together, and they did.”
While Hillsboro had defeated the Miners 15-5 earlier in the season, history told the Toppers that the game would be much closer than their meeting in April. Gillespie had won four straight regional championships, the last three of which were at the expense of the Toppers.
Both teams were lights out for the first three innings, with Kai Hanner striking out the first nine Gillespie batters she faced on just 37 pitches. Sydney Bires got the Toppers to go 1-2-3 in each of the first three innings as well, with Hillsboro’s only hit coming in the second inning, when Sheridan Lyerla smoked a double to right field, but was tagged out trying to extend the hit into a triple thanks to a perfect relay by the Miners.
Gillespie would finally break Hanner’s strikeout run in the fourth inning, with leadoff batter Rylee Jarman drawing a walk. After a sacrifice moved Jarman to second, Keaton Link hit a sharp ground ball to the hole between short and third for what would be Gillespie’s only hit of the game.
“Shelby Houchlei made a great play in the hole to knock it down. It just rolled a little away from her and their runner was able to get in,” Tuetken said of Gillespie’s lone score. “Two of the three runs that were scored today were on infield hits.”
Gillespie would get their next batter on as well on an attempted fielder’s choice, but Hanner struck out the next two batters to keep it a one-run game.
After going down in order in the fourth, Hillsboro got the run back in the bottom of the fifth. Shelby Houchlei singled and moved to second on a sacrifice by Sheridan Lyerla. Chloe Beck would then pick up the second hit of the inning with an RBI single that allowed Houchlei to score from second.
Beck would move to second on the throw to the plate, but was stranded there after Bires struck out the next two batters.
Both teams would get runners on in the sixth, with both batters reaching on errors, but neither scored and the game went to the seventh, then to the eighth after another scoreless frame.
Hanner would get a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the eighth, despite a sharply hit fly ball by Shelby Taylor which Hemken made a good play on in left field, setting up the heroics of the eighth inning.
The sequence in the eighth was dessert for the Toppers though, as Hanner’s performance on the mound was the main course. The St. Louis University-bound senior finished the game with 17 strikeouts and just one walk as she improved to 18-3 on the season. The 17 strikeouts were the second most of the season for Hanner, who struck out 23 against Alton-Marquette in 12 innings on April 17.
Now 27-3 on the season, Hillsboro will take on Pleasant Plains in the Litchfield Sectional on Wednesday, May 22, after the 15-14 Cardinals upset top-seeded Tri-City/Sangamon Valley on Saturday 1-0 to claim the Riverton Regional title.
While Tri-City/Sangamon Valley had handed Hillsboro one of their only losses this season in a time shortened 6-2 affair, Tuetken said that he wasn’t as familiar with Plains, having only seen them for a few innings during the season.
At least that’s the case on the softball field. In basketball, Pleasant Plains was Hillsboro’s opponent in the sectional opener, which ended in a triple overtime victory for the Toppers on their run to a fourth place finish at state.
Hopes are high that Wednesday’s game can have the same final result as the basketball sectional this winter, but maybe in less dramatic fashion for the sake of the blood pressure of the Topper faithful.
“We’re just going to have to play a clean game like today and have some timely hits and we’ll see what happens,” Tuetken said regarding the sectional.
May 18 at Gillespie
Class 2A Regional Championship
Gillespie 000 100 00 1 1 1
Hillsboro 000 010 01 2 4 1
Gillespie IP R ER H K BB
L-Bires 8 2 2 4 8 2
Hillsboro IP R ER H K BB
W-Hanner 8 1 1 1 17 1
Multiple Hits: None. 2B: Hillsboro - Sheridan Lyerla 1.
Records: Hillsboro (27-3); Gillespie (15-12).