EAST PEORIA — Somewhere tucked in Mount Zion's wild loss on Saturday was hope.
After New Lenox Providence Catholic erased three separate four-run deficits to secure a 16-15 walk-off win in eight innings in the third-place game of the Class 3A softball state tournament, a reality started swirling around the Mount Zion team.
This was just the beginning.
The Braves (30-9) suffered back-to-back one-run losses at EastSide Centre in East Peoria to take home a fourth-place trophy, the first state trophy in program history, but Mount Zion isn't a one-hit wonder.
The eight returning starters have set a goal that is shouldering towards an expectation to return to EastSide Centre for the state finals again next season.
“With this group of girls, I think we’ll be back again next year," junior catcher Dayna Kennedy said.
Sophomore pitcher Audrey Eades, who started both state final games, knows the exact potential of the bunch that returns all starters except third baseman Camryn Skundberg.
“It’s a very special moment to be here, especially for coach (Greg Blakey)," Eades said. "We did our best to be here for coach. We’ll be back next year for sure."
Mount Zion had Providence Catholic on the ropes three times, and each time, the Celtics (29-12) battled back.
"Give credit to (Providence Catholic)," Blakey said. "They never stopped. They could have folded a bunch of times and we could have folded a couple times. To both team’s credit, this was like a heavyweight title bout. Like Frazier and Ali."
After falling behind 1-0 after the first inning, the Braves answered back with a grand slam from Stephanie Hurm in the top of the third inning that just crept over the left-field fence to take a 4-1 lead.
It was Hurm's second career grand slam, the other came in the sectional semifinals against Chatham Glenwood.
“We kind of felt like, not that we had the game but I don’t know, there was more hope that we could win this game," Hurm said.
Prior to that, the Braves stranded three runners in the first two innings.
“That was huge," Blakey said. "That got us a lead and changed the momentum. We were a little flat going into the inning. She hits the granny and maybe turns the tide a little for us there."
The Celtics tacked two on in the bottom of the third to pull within one and added three runs in the top of the fourth to take a 6-5 lead.
“When we went up 6-5, we thought we kind of got (the momentum) back," Providence Catholic coach Jay Biesterfeld said. "Obviously they had the grand slam to take the lead, so we were looking at that as one swing of the bat."
Again, Mount Zion answered back in the top of the fifth with a five-run inning, getting RBIs from Hurm (3-for-4, 6 RBIs), Alexis Rhoades and Bailey Davis to take a 10-6 lead.
The Celtics added three more in the bottom half of the frame and took a one-run lead, 11-10, after a pair of runs in the bottom of the sixth.
“You just had a feeling that wasn’t going to be enough," Biesterfeld said. "Even though we had the lead the last inning, we were just playing by outs and how quickly we could get an out because we had a feeling they were going to find a way to get runs."
Sammy Walker led off the top of the seventh with a pinch-hit triple just over the glove of right fielder Teagan Sopczak, who later connected on the walk-off single.
Ally Bruner came in and punched through an RBI-single to tie the game at 11-all. It was her first RBI since she was struck by a line drive on April 21, and just her third at-bat back.
“It was honestly one of the best feelings," Bruner said.
Eades found the gap on a two-RBI double and the Braves took an 15-11 lead into the bottom of the seventh.
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Maggie Joutras led off the inning with a home run before Eades, who re-entered the game as a pitcher, got back-to-back outs and had Providence Catholic down to its last strike.
Taylor Young had a two-run home run and Lex Leighton tied the game at 15-15 with an RBI-single.
“It was nerve-wracking through it all," Eades said. "It was coming to an end, we had the momentum and all the team was pumped up. We wanted to win this game. It was a tough loss. We tried our best."
That set up for Sopczak's walk-off in the eighth.
“We’ve had a pretty good offense all year up and down our lineup," Blakey said. "We caught a little bit of lightning in a bottle with Sammy Walker with a pinch hit and Allly Bruner with a pinch hit. The offense was huge today. Again, against a great offensive team like they were, we needed every swing."
Playing through it
When Kennedy had a scary home-plate collision during the supersectional, trainers had to put her left kneecap back into place.
She stayed in that game and played every inning behind the plate at EastSide Centre. Blakey said she would have missed time in the regular season.
Kennedy was 2-for-4 with two doubles and was on base five times Saturday, with Emma Ewing pinch running for her each time.
“It just made me mad because during the supersectional game, what happened, I feel like that messed up my swing," Kennedy said. "I don’t want to say that’s why I did bad yesterday, but I feel like that’s why I wasn’t hitting very good. For me to come out today and go (2-for-4) was good to end my season like that."
Lighting up the scoreboard
Saturday's game was played in Diamond 3 instead of the traditional Diamond 2 in order to get all of the games in with storms expected.
The scoreboard got some work.
The two teams combined for the most runs scored in a Class 3A state tournament game (31) breaking the previous record of 21 set in 2014.
Hurm tied the Class 3A single-game RBI record in a state tournament with six.
Summing it up in eight
Saturday's game felt like the entire season played in eight innings.
Mount Zion bounced back from lows and reached nearly unthinkable highs, much like it has all season.
There were moments of pristine offense, like a pair of suicide squeeze bunts in the fifth inning. There were pitching stretches where Eades, Olivia Gilman and Chayse Ramey looked un-hittable, and moments they struggled.
Kynzie Wrigley played a strong glove at shortstop and there were moments the gloves didn't back the Braves.
It was one season rolled into a combined 47 outs.
“We’ve not made anything easy this year," Blakey said. "That’s kind of what we are. Sometimes we’ve not been pretty on defense, sometimes we’ve not been pretty on pitching, sometimes we’ve not been pretty on the mound, but somehow we find a way to get it done."