EAST PEORIA — Greg Blakey didn't have to say much to his two seniors in November.
When offseason work started, Blakey, Mount Zion's softball coach, asked a simple question to Camryn Skundberg and Sammy Walker.
"How can I help you be good leaders," Blakey asked.
But he didn't need to. The next thing he new Skundberg and Walker were leading the charge for the Braves, who finished fourth in Class 3A after a 16-15 loss to New Lenox Providence Catholic on Saturday.
“We’re seniors so we wanted to be the leaders, and there was only two of us," said Walker, who delivered a key triple on Saturday. "Last year there were nine seniors and going to just two of us, we’re like, ‘All right. Let’s take it by the wheel and let’s lead and do what we've got to do.’”
Skundberg, who entered the state finals batting a blistering .512 knows the team is in good hands with eight returning starters and a suddenly experienced pitching staff.
“I wish nothing but the best for them next year," Skundberg emotionally said. "I hope that they come back. Honestly, no one wants to end it in regionals or anything. I think they can do it and they know they can do it."
Skundberg and Walker were the first to line up for drills in practice and left an indelible mark.
"They made sure people busted their butts everyday at practice," Blakey said. "They set a good tone. They were the first two to make sure they’re in a drill and to make sure they’re going as hard as they can. They’ve been instrumental in making sure people follow them and follow them well."
Their presence will be missed.
“We’re all a big family and I consider us all best friends," junior Ally Bruner said. "It’s going to suck not having them next year, but I think we can definitely make it next year. I think we have a really good chance."
Like father, like daughter
Maggie Joutras was close to having a single to lead off the eighth inning.
Mount Zion center fielder Gabbie Koslofski had other plans, making a good read off the ball and making a shoestring catch for the first out of the inning.
Leaning on the fence down the right field line was her father, former Milwaukee Brewers and Kansas City Royals center fielder Kevin Koslofski.
They've always practiced outfield drills, but those drills amped up as Gabbie, a junior, entered high school.
“As soon as it was hit I knew I had to catch it, no matter if it was close or far. I knew I had to get it," Gabbie said.
But when she got off the grass, she wasn't going to be tempted to look at Kevin celebrating.
“I refuse to look at him when we’re playing a game, actually," Gabbie said. "It makes me nervous. I have to live up to standards."
While Mount Zion was up to bat in the top of the eighth inning, Bruner was warming up behind the Braves' dugout.
Had the game gone to the ninth, Bruner, who was struck by a line drive on April 21 while pitching, was going to make a return to the circle.
Though it didn't happen, Bruner's perseverance was felt in both games at EastSide Centre.
She was a combined 2-for-2 as a pinch hitter with an RBI.
"It was a little bit of a storybook to her," Blakey said. “It was a nice way for her to end her season."
Said Gabbie Koslowski: “It was awesome. I’m happy that she got it."
Saturday's game was two minutes shy of the longest Class 3A game played in the state tournament.
The game lasted 2 hours, 42 minutes. The only game longer in the class was in 2008 when Bartonville Limestone and Marengo played in a 2:44 semifinal game.
“This game was back-and-forth, probably the longest game I’ve ever been in," Walker said. "Two-and-a-half hours, that’s crazy."
The Braves capped off a tremendous run to end the season, winning 13 of 14 games entering the state tournament.
“What a run," Blakey said. "We didn’t necessarily think we were not going to be here, but we wondered. We were the third place team in our conference and we went through a few games in the middle of the season where we didn’t play well at all. Thank goodness we played very very well and got things together at the end of the year."
Said Kennedy: “In the beginning, I don’t think anyone thought we’d go this far and we definitely proved everyone wrong that we’re very capable of doing it."