DECATUR -- The plan, the big blueprint hummed along for Millikin softball all season.
A mix of stellar pitching and defense carried through a CCIW regular season title and into Saturday's conference tournament championship. After a comeback win against North Central in the morning, Millikin took on Illinois Wesleyan.
You could argue Millikin's plan held in the championship game, but Illinois Wesleyan once again showed why they've continued to be the gold standard of the conference. The Titans did just enough, using a sacrifice fly to score the only run of the 1-0 championship game.
"It's really tough to put into words," Wesleyan coach Tiffany Prager said. "Millikin fought like crazy and anybody could have ended up on the winning side of the game. We were fortunate to put some hits together."
Like all season, Millikin's pitching was oustanding. Cathy Lebryk scattered six hits in seven innings, including one ground ball after another. The run that scored wasn't even earned -- Wesleyan's Brittany Murphy advanced to second on a throwing error.
"Cathy threw a heck of a game, couldn't have put us in a better position to win that game," Millikin coach Katie Tenboer said.
"Sometimes that's how it falls."
It leaves Millikin (32-12) waiting for Monday when the NCAA decides which at-large teams make the tournament. If the Big Blue don't hear their name and this is the end, it's a heartbreaking finish to a breakout season. Millikin won 14 more games than last year and turned home field advantage into a guarantee on the new field.
Even when it seemed dire earlier in the day, Millikin responded.
To get to Wesleyan, the Big Blue beat North Central 7-3, but Millikin needed to rally. After Millikin took an early lead in the second, starting pitcher Gracie Brookens had one bad inning in the bottom half as North Central scored three runs.
But Brookens recovered, not allowing another run in the last five innings.
Millikin's offense went to work, manufacturing runs in the third, fourth and seventh innings to keep the pressure on. Led by Kalli Farmer's 3-for-4 game, all nine spots in the order added at least one hit and the Big Blue stole four bases as well.
"That was amazing," junior Alyssa Voegele said. "We came out with the mentality that we were going to win that game because we were as prepared as you can be to play a team four times."
That offense could never come together the same way against Wesleyan like it did against North Central. The opportunities were there, though, and were better as the game went on. Millikin had a runner in scoring position in the fourth, and Brooke Heimerl doubled to leadoff the fifth before the best chance in the sixth inning.
With the top of the batting order up, Millikin suddenly had hope. Kailey Lyons threaded a ball between third and shortstop, and Marissa Padilla singled to put two runners on with no outs. But a quick infield pop-up and a double play turned by the Wesleyan third baseman Katie Caulfield sucked the air out of the Millikin bleachers.
Millikin went 1-2-3 in the seventh.
Tenboer couldn't find much fault.
"We couldn't have played better, honestly, defensively," she said. "Just didn't get the timely execution offensively.
"Probably could have done a few things differently in that game, but that's just the way it goes sometimes."
Wesleyan's been the gold standard of the CCIW, now winning five of the last eight conference tournaments.
When they needed it the most, their pitching shone bright. The Titans pitching allowed 11 hits and no runs in the three games this weekend. The hitting delivered at the right time when Jillian Runyon, Wesleyan's leadoff hitter and CCIW runs leader, powered a sacrifice fly to left field in the fifth inning.
If Millikin finds out Monday the season will continue, it'll be a welcome gift. But if not, what they've accomplished to this point is something they can proudly point toward.
"It's an amazing thing," Lebryk said. "We've already gone as far as any team since 2011, last time we were able to be in (the CCIW) tournament. It's been an amazing experience in general and if we get the bid, it'll be an amazing experience to get to continue this with these girls."