“We are over just looking at a name on a shirt or one person’s name and being afraid of a team. We just take each team like they are wearing a blank shirt and go out there and play our game.”
So said Perry junior pitcher Emma Olejniczak after her brilliant two-hit, nine-strikeout performance helped carry the 15th-ranked Jayettes (24-12) to a 3-0 win over DC-G (17-21) in Tuesday’s Class 4A Region 7 Final at the PAC.
DC-G had made five consecutive trips to state, and were the three-time defending champions. Although not sporting a winning record, the Fillies had played a 5A-heavy schedule and had done so for the most part without ace Rachel Lowary in the ring.
Lowary, a junior, had pitched DC-G to the state title last year after playing the outfield while older sister Paige led the Fillies to titles in 2013 and 2014. The current Lowary ace had torn a quad muscle in her leg at the state track meet and had thrown only 56 innings during the season and only six frames since the end of June, but she was in the circle for the Fillies Tuesday.
Unfazed, Perry immediately jumped to a 2-0 lead that was just what head coach Tina Kenney had hoped for, as the early spurt fired up the Perry portion of an enormous crowd.
“We wanted to get out early and see how they (DC-G) would react to being down,” she said. “They have a lot of experience playing in big games, but this is a different team they had to play tonight and we were not intimidated.”
Jayette senior Victoria Hegstrom said the team were determined not to let the opportunity slip away.
“We were really focused on our goal and knew we just had to take every pitch one at a time and not let anything bother us,” she said. “We knew we were prepared for her (Lowary) and knew we could take it to them and we did.”
Kenney had the team work exclusively on Lowary’s preferred pitch locations in practice and said her confidence had grown as she saw her team’s excited and confident approach.
Paige Lowary had no-hit Perry in a 1-0 Fillies win in Dallas Center in 2014, and erasing the memory of losing a game in which the Jayettes had played well behind Olejniczak’s three-hitter was a motivating factor, Kenney said.
“We talked about that game two years ago and how hard we battled, but that something was missing,” Kenney explained. “That something that was missing was a belief that we belonged in that game, a belief that we could compete with them and a belief that we could win.
“But this is not that team,” she said of her current squad. “This team is different and more experienced — we can make those tough plays, can get the clutch hit and we believe in each other.”
Olejniczak was outstanding off the rubber from the start. She worked a quick 1-2-3 top of the first, then struck out the first two batters of the second before Kamryn O’Brien singled. A strikeout ended the frame, with a harmless single from Paige Linthicum in the fourth the only noise the guests made through their first 14 at-bats.
By then the junior — who is second in 4A with 283 strikeouts — had all the support she needed, thanks in part to herself.
Jo Diw opened the bottom of the first for Perry by patiently drawing a walk, then moved to second on a wild pitch. A pop-out followed, but Alyssa Kruger also walked as it was clear Lowary was having trouble settling in.
Rachel Kinney hit a hard grounder toward the right side, which Kruger could not avoid, resulting in the second out and forcing Diw to return to second base. Olejniczak followed with a clean single to the first-base side of center field, scoring Diw and allowing Kinney to race to third, from where she scored on a second wild pitch for a 2-0 Jayette lead.
Lowary struck out three of the next four batters she faced but ran into trouble in the Perry third.
Diw was again the catalyst, leading off the inning with a base hit. She stole second base and moved to third on a ground out. Kruger’s single put Perry in front, 3-0, with Kinney following with a single, but Lowary avoided further damage with two quick outs.
O’Brien opened the Fillies fifth by reaching second on a throwing error. She moved to third on Amber Fistler’s sacrifice bunt, but Olejniczak stranded her with a pair of strikeouts to end the threat.
Sid Vancil had singled in the fifth but was left at first base, with an unusual circumstance costing Perry a run in the sixth. Olejniczak singled and Hegstrom was hit with a pitch, after which Maddy Jans moved the runners to second and third with a sacrifice bunt.
That brought Brooke Huntington to the plate. She grounded to second and was safe when the throw to nail Olejniczak sliding home was late.
However, the umpire’s lineup card had Maddie West batting in Huntington’s place, as DC-G coach Steve Schlafke pointed out. Perry was going through their order for the third time before the mistake was caught, as the scorecard was indeed in error.
“That was totally my fault,” Kenney said. “We have been using the same order for weeks now, and somehow the 2 (Huntington) and the 6 (West) got reversed. It was all my fault and I am glad it didn’t cost us.”
The result was West being called out and the runners forced to return. Huntington was send back to the plate and grounded out, leaving Perry with a 3-0 lead.
The delay and denial of a run had no impact on Perry, who calmly took the field knowing they were only three outs from ending DC-G’s run at state and taking their spot in Harlan Rogers Park.
A pop-up to first baseman West and a quick stab of a grounder back to Olejniczak accounted for the first two outs, and when Hegstrom ran under a fly ball to short left field the celebration was on.
Perry has not appeared in the state tournament since 1999, a year after placing second. Jans and Hegstrom are the only seniors on the team, and the latter could, understandably, not stop smiling after the victory.
“It has been a dream of mine forever,” she gushed. “Now it is coming true, and to think that the last thing I am going to do (as a senior) is play at state makes it even more special.”
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