EAST PEORIA — Finding a better half inning than Mount Zion's top of the third on Friday would be like searching through a haystack for that pesky needle.
The Braves crushed seven hits, batted around, loaded the bases three times and scored nine runs in the Class 3A state semifinals against Sycamore at the EastSide Centre in East Peoria.
The proverbial bags were packed and the flight was all but booked to land down in Saturday's state championship game. The Braves had a six-run lead, the offense was rollin' and their ace was on the mound.
Suddenly in the fifth inning, all that was wasn't. Mount Zion allowed seven runs on five hits and had uncharacteristic errors to let Sycamore's Faith Reynolds tie the game 11-all. Three innings later, Reynolds delivered a walk-off single to give Sycamore a 12-11 win in nine innings and a spot in the state championship game. The loss sent the Braves to the third-place game against Kankakee Bishop MacNamara at 9 a.m. Saturday.
In all, Mount Zion had six errors — a defensive performance that head coach Greg Blakey said the team hasn't turned in since April.
"If we play clean defense (in the fifth), we probably come out ahead," Blakey said. "That’s not typically the defense we play, but the three mistakes on the balls that were hit that we kind of booted and kicked probably cost us the game."
It's the third one-run loss in as many games for Mount Zion (30-5-1) in the state final four in the last two seasons. It was so close to being sweet revenge for a fourth-place finish last season.
Mount Zion trailed 3-1 entering the third. Dayna Kennedy had a one-out double, Audrey Eades singled and Kynzie Wrigley was intentionally walked to load the bases for Ally Bruner, who hit a high bouncer that sailed over third baseman Erin Simmons' glove to plate two and tie the game. Isabel Shafer singled to load the basses again before Bailey Davis' double brought home two more to give the Braves a 5-3 lead. Two batters late, Gabbie Koslofski walked to load the bases for a third time, with No. 9 hitter Emma Ewing clearing them with a triple.
On the very next pitch, against relief pitcher Milani Sablan, Kennedy delivered a two-run home run to give Mount Zion a 10-3 lead and every bit of momentum possible. Sablan only allowed two other hits against her, though, to quell the Braves' bats.
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“I think we got content in the (third) when we got the nine runs," Kennedy said. "I think we thought, ‘Oh, we got this game in the bag.’ We came out and made five errors in one inning and that killed us.
“I feel like we definitely felt like we had already made it to the championship after that big inning because it was 10-3. We thought, ‘We got the lead, we’re fine.’ That wasn’t the case."
Then came the four-error fifth inning that allowed Sycamore to wash away the Braves' lead and tie the game. The Braves, though, were within an instant of erasing the damage. Sycamore had one on and two outs before 10 consecutive batters reached base.
“That’s not indicative of how we play defense at all," Blakey said. "That happens. You have a bad game every once in awhile. We’ve not had a bad defensive game since late in April. Today was a bad day to have that happen. The kids who made those errors don’t usually make those errors."
Both teams used just two pitchers apiece in the game. Audrey Eades started for Mount Zion and pitched 4 2/3 innings, walking two on five hits and allowing five earned runs before Chayse Ramey came in for the final 3 2/3 innings.
The Braves jumped on Reynolds, Sycamore's starter. They tagged her for nine runs on seven hits before Sablan cooled the bats. There wasn't anything particularly fancy or unusual about Sablan in the circle, Bruner and Kennedy agreed.
“I don’t think the pitching was different," Bruner said. "I just don’t think we got on her like we did the first pitcher. Sometimes that happens in a game."
Said Kennedy: “I didn’t think she had anything special. I just think we got in our heads and we thought we had the game won. We didn’t take our at-bats as seriously as we needed to."