GRAYSLAKE – Vernon Hills coach Jan Pauly didn't want to deal with the top of Prairie Ridge's lineup again with her team clinging to a one-run lead Saturday heading into the top of the seventh.
No. 2 and 3 batters Emmie Farnam and Madi O'Brien already had homered off of Vernon Hills starter Madison Johnson. If they got to the plate again, Pauly knew Prairie Ridge's odds of completing the comeback were pretty high.
“We were lucky to be facing the bottom third of their order,” Pauly said of the final inning. “We were not wanting to look at their No. 2 and No. 3 hitters. We felt OK with their No. 1 hitter, but we really wanted to stay away from the next two."
Pauly got her wish.
Johnson retired the side in order, and Prairie Ridge's attempt to rally from a four-run deficit fell short, 5-4, at the Class 3A Grayslake Central Sectional championship.
The Wolves (12-14) ended their season one win shy of the program's first sectional title since 2009; however, they captured their first regional title since 2012 – a notable accomplishment for a team that midway through the season appeared more likely to endure an early postseason exit rather than reach a sectional title game.
"We got a lot farther than I think anybody thought we would," Prairie Ridge coach Jan Brown said. "It was fun. Obviously, the potential is there. We've got it all. They all came together at the end when it counts."
PR grabbed an early lead when Farnam launched a solo home run as only the second batter of the game, but Vernon Hills took control from there.
The Cougars scored twice in their half of the first off Wolves starter Haley Barnes with RBI singles from Tatiana Guletsky and Rachel Wright.
The Wolves could have escaped having given up only one run, but a dropped foul ball by first baseman Maggie Schremp extended Wright's at-bat. Wright lined Barnes' next pitch hard at third baseman Bella Crimaldi, who was only able to get a piece as the ball deflected into left field for a base hit.
Vernon Hills added three more runs in the third. Wright connected for a two-run homer to center field, and Mackenzie Mahler immediately followed with a blast to left-center to make it 5-1.
Both scoring rallies for Vernon Hills started with two outs and the bases empty.
“We were fortunate to capitalize early, because our kids were a little hyped as the game went on,” Pauly said. “[Barnes] made some great adjustments, and we couldn’t catch on, so it was lucky for us to score early.”
Barnes settled in from there, allowing only two base runners over the last three innings.
"I ended up calling my pitches from the fourth inning on," Barnes said. "The first three innings, we had a coach calling the pitches. I ended up changing the pitching because I could see what they were doing more than he could, and I know some of the girls. [Catcher] Madi [O'Brien] would call the position, and I would throw my pitches."
The adjustment gave Prairie Ridge's offense the opportunity to get the Wolves back into the game.
O'Brien led off the fourth with a home run to center field, and PR got to within 5-3 in the fifth. Crimaldi walked with one out and then moved to second on a wild pitch before Sara Gelon lined a one-out single into right field to score the run.
Barnes added a solo homer with two outs in the fifth, but Johnson settled in to retire the final four batters in order to end Prairie Ridge's season.
"We put our heart into these games," Barnes said. "It definitely showed."
STAR OF THE GAME
Haley Barnes, Prairie Ridge, sr., P
Barnes, in her final high school game, kept the Wolves within striking distance after a tough start and aided the comeback effort with a solo home run.
5: Runs with two outs for Vernon Hills during its sectional championship win over Prairie Ridge.
AND ANOTHER THING...
Saturday's loss was the first time in four postseason games the Wolves failed to score at least 10 runs.