The bus rolled back into the parking lot of the team hotel a little after 7 p.m. Friday night following a team dinner at Avanti's restaurant in Peoria.
The players on the Mount Zion softball team headed back to their respective rooms while the coaching staff huddled in the parking lot to recap the Class 3A state semifinal loss to Sycamore earlier in the day that saw the Braves lose a seven-run lead.
The coaches were doing exactly what they told their players not to do some three hours earlier: Talk about the loss. Before the team left EastSide Centre earlier Friday afternoon, Mount Zion head coach Greg Blakey told his team that they had until 3:45 p.m. to dwell on the loss — about 45 minutes after the game ended.
Naturally, there was a hint of confusion when the players saw the coaching staff still talking about the game, so the players took it into their own hands to put a stop to that conversation. They sent athletic trainer Dustin Fink to the parking lot to squish any lingering talk of the game. "We can't replay it," they told Fink.
Blakey knew his veteran group was right. The conversation ceased.
“It was great on their part," Blakey said. "They’ve already wiped it away by that time. It was a great lesson by the kids to us."
The message came after a team dinner in which Blakey requested his players share their favorite moment from the season. There was no consensus moment, but each moment showed the togetherness that the Braves needed to show in Saturday's 4-2 win over Kankakee Bishop McNamara in the third-place game. Blakey then shared his own message to the team.
Before long, the game was in the past and their sights were set on third place — no easy task following a game most of Mount Zion's players felt like they had wrapped up with a seven-run lead.
“A lot of grit, actually," senior Ally Bruner said on what the bounce-back showed her about her team. "We needed that win right there and we got it."
The goal all season long had been to place better in East Peoria than last season's fourth-place finish. No, the blueprint didn't include a deflating loss in the semifinals. Blakey did the same thing early Saturday morning that he'd been doing for the last four weeks. He's typically been going to bed about 9:30 p.m. to get a few solid hours of sleep, but tosses and turns and watches the clock while recapping the previous games from 3 to 5 a.m., only this time he knew he had one more game in front of him and the players had their own goals in front of them.
“We all talked and said, ‘We made it to state. This is a big accomplishment coming here,' pitcher Audrey Eades said. "Last year we ended in fourth and our main goal was to be better than last year. We came into this game thinking: We’re getting third. We’re getting better than last year."
Just what does it take to put that game behind the team?
“It takes mental toughness," junior shortstop Kynzie Wrigely said. "We’ve all worked together. We’ve all played this game a long time. We’ve been through these experiences more than once. I think we know how to get it done."
“We’re a really strong group," catcher Dayna Kennedy said. "We come together when things need to be accomplished and we did that today."
Even through the cloudiest glass, Friday's game paved the way for Saturday's win. It wasn't the trophy the team hoped to trot back to Mount Zion, but it was better than their finish last year and wrapped up another season of 30 or more wins. Saturday, like Friday, was a grind. Pitcher Chayse Ramey struck out the potential go-ahead run with two outs and two on in the bottom of the seventh on Saturday.
“Everything happens for a reason," Blakey said. "I hate losing. They hate losing. It kind of prepared us for today, to be honest. (Friday) was a nail-biter and emotionally back and forth. This game was kind of the same. (Friday’s) loss prepared us for this win. We had to fight, battle, claw to survive this game.
“The kids, to their credit, did that. They could have been done after an emotional loss yesterday. They bounced back, wiped it clean and came out with a win."