MACON — Freshman Karlie Bean celebrated the moment with a fist pump in the pitcher's circle.
From behind home plate, senior catcher Mackenzi Tabbert did the same before the Windsor/Stewardson-Strasburg softball team lined up for the post-game handshakes after an 8-1 win against Meridian on Friday in the Class 1A Macon (Meridian) Sectional championship game.
The celebration was quiet, but for the Hatchets — who will play at 11 a.m. Monday against Hardin Calhoun in the Springfield (UIS) Super-sectional for the chance to go back to the state final four — it was business as usual.
This is a team that has one loss and one tie since May 8, 2018, and the seniors who play both volleyball and softball will play in their fifth super-sectional on Monday. The Hatchets (36-1-1) have outscored their opponents 39-1 this postseason. They're used to these kind of games.
Friday's game, though, finally felt like a postseason game that hung in the balance with a shot at the final four in plain sight.
“It felt real today," said starting pitcher Calla Roney. "We want that next one. That next one is going to be the big one to launch us to the state tournament. That’s when it will really sink in a lot, I would say."
Roney picked up the win for Windsor, throwing five innings, allowing four hits, a walk and striking out six. But before she even had to step back in the circle for the top of the second inning, the Hatchets gave her a three-run cushion. In the bottom of the first, Megan Schlechte hit a two-run home run to straightaway center field for a quick 2-0 lead. Two batters later, Roney parked a home run over the fence in left field.
“It was really exciting," Schlechte said. "I haven’t hit one in a while and Calla was pitching really well. Everything just went together."
The Hatchets added another run in the second inning thanks to a fielder's choice RBI from Katrina Davis to take a 4-0 lead. Then, Meridian (28-5) pitcher Peyton Latham settled in, allowing just one hit in the next two innings, putting the Hawks in a position to strike back.
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But Roney found a way to squash each threat and worked out of danger in both innings. She stranded a runner on third in the top of the fourth and danced around a bases-loaded situation in the top of the fifth before her offense tacked on four more runs in the bottom of the fifth behind a two-run homer from Tabbert and a two-run double from Maddy Pfeiffer to all but seal another sectional championship.
“They came out very, very strong out of the gate," Meridian coach Greg Streeval said. "Obviously they hit a couple balls out early, got a lot of momentum. We held them to four runs for a while. That’s just a really good hitting team. It seems like everything we hit today was right at somebody. We squared some balls up and hit some balls up, but right at some people. It was one of those days."
W/SS coach Craig Moffett is posed with a strangely difficult task. He has the talent on his roster that should easily plant them at EastSide Centre in East Peoria next weekend for the state semifinals. But for a team that's been this good, for this long, he can't let any of the steps along the way get monotonous.
Therein was the struggle, but with the state finals one game away, the worst is in the past. Each opponent, save for Calhoun — which the Hatchets have seen in each of the last three seasons — is new. That's a new gameplan and a new scouting report.
“It’s a grind. Obviously it’s a grind to get to where we are to advance this far in the postseason," Roney said. "Everyday is a little bit different because from here on out every team is a little bit different so we have to modify it and do what we can do against each team to get a chance to win."
“We know we’ve got a tough game coming up in the supers (against Hardin)," Moffett said. "Obviously they are focused on the next thing. They’ll enjoy it when they get together after the season or at their 10-year reunion. Right now, they’re focused on that next step."
Will a win on Monday prompt a larger celebration from the Hatchets?
"Absolutely," Roney said.