EAST PEORIA — The chances were there for Mount Zion.
Every time the Braves appeared primed to push a run across the plate, Lombard Montini pitcher Bri Clifton rose to the occasion and sat the Braves down.
Mount Zion left nine runners on base, including seven in the final four innings of Friday's 3-2 loss to Lombard Montini in the Class 3A softball state semifinals at EastSide Centre in East Peoria.
The Braves play New LenoxProvidence Catholic at 10 a.m. Saturday in the third-place game.
“For the most part we had people on base almost every inning," Mount Zion coach Greg Blakey said. "We had chances but didn’t make the most of them. Unfortunately for us, the better team won today."
Audrey Eades put Mount Zion (30-8) in a position to advance to the first softball state championship game in school history. She pitched five innings and allowed three runs in five innings. All three of the Broncos' runs came in a three-run fifth inning.
All of Montini's (29-9) runs in the inning came with two outs. Clifton delivered an RBI single, followed by an RBI fielder's choice off the bat of Lauren Latoria and an RBI single from Ashley Lynch before Eades coaxed Elyse Spaccapaniccia into a flyout to second baseman Bailey Davis.
“In my opinion, my pitches weren’t moving," Eades said of the fifth. "I tried throwing my curve mostly so I could get it on the outside corner, but they were too far out."
Eades knew she was nearing the end of the road in the fifth before Olivia Gilman came on for two scoreless innings in relief.
"In my head, that was going to be my last batter," Eades said.
Eades held a strong-hitting team to four hits.
“To their credit, we knew they were a good hitting team coming in," Blakey said. "We really liked our chances, but they did a good job scraping a couple hits together and they made the most out of their opportunities."
After working in-and-out of danger in Monday's supersectional win over Centralia, Eades was in command Friday.
“Outstanding, honestly," Mount Zion catcher Dayna Kennedy said of Eades' pitching. "She threw a very great game."
Eades, a sophomore, had a no-hitter through three innings.
“She threw great," Blakey said. "She did everything she was supposed to do. She kept the ball on the ground. The hits they got were on the ground as well and found holes. She absolutely did her job and pitched a great game."
At the dish, Eades gave Mount Zion an early lead in the fourth inning.
Camryn Skundberg led off the bottom of the fourth inning with a double that sailed over the head of Montini centerfielder Cynthia Ng followed by a hard-hit single off the bat of Kynzie Wrigley to allow Eades to come to the plate with runners at the corners and no outs.
Eades wanted to hit the ball to right field, but ended up with a bloop single that fell between three Montini defenders.
“I was actually trying to pull it so I could get my runners in scoring position and scoring, but I just got under it and I was very glad they dropped it," Eades said.
Wrigley drove in the other Mount Zion run of the game in the bottom of the fifth with a single roped down the right field line.
Working against Montini's Clifton in the state tournament is no easy task.
She was the winning pitcher in 2016 when Montini beat Washington in the championship game.
“Bri has a way, she knows what to do," Montini coach Mike Bukovsky said. "She’s been in those spots before. She’s a competitor. She’s a happy-go-lucky kid, but underneath that surface, she’s a competitor. She’s always been that way."
Keep it movin'
Mount Zion elected to intentionally walk Nikki Cuchran in all four of her at-bats.
The DePaul University-bound third baseman entered the game hitting .703 with 15 home runs and 19 doubles.
Blakey had no intent to pitch to her, and it never bit the Braves. She never came around to score.
“I’ve never been booed before at a high school game, other than my ex-wife one time," Blakey said. "That was the plan. We knew she is a great hitter and we didn’t want her to change the game for them. Make somebody else beat you."
Eades knew in a close game it wasn't worth dealing with Cuchran.
“We scoped her out a bit and that was the best," Eades said. "We didn’t want her to get ahold of one of my balls to hit it out because that’s a run we couldn’t get back."
Almost had it
Kennedy has been the great equalizer all season.
She led off the seventh inning with an opposite-field blast that fell just short of clearing the right field fence.
“She’s a tremendous hitter," Bukovsky said. "That last fly ball she hit, my gosh, she missed that thing and still hit it 190 feet and 190,000 feet in the air. She really put it up there. She’s a great player and we knew she was going to be a handful."
Working out of danger
Eades has a way of giving opposing offenses a small sign of life before squashing threats.
In the third inning, after an intentional pass to Cuchran to open the frame, Montini loaded the bases with one out.
Eades forced a pop up to herself and induced a ground ball to get out of the inning unscathed.
“We were kind of one hit away, and one time we had the bases loaded with one out and we didn’t get anything there," Bukovsky said. "If you get those things, it opens up a little more, but we didn’t. It’s a tribute to their defense and their pitcher."
Setting the stage
Don't look now, but Mount Zion is as equipped as any team to march back to EastSide next season.
The team loses two seniors — Skundberg (who was 3-for-3) and bench extraordinaire Sammy Walker.
“This year is a big deal because it’s our exposure year," Kennedy said. "I feel like we’ll be able to come back next year because we’re only losing two seniors."
For the first state appearance in program history, Braves fans filled the stands.
“We had such a good turnout for the fans," Kennedy said. "With everyone being here it’s so surreal that we were even here. We played a very good game."