NORWALK — Three years ago an inexperienced and jittery Perry softball team had their hearts broken in the postseason when host Norwalk scored in the bottom of the seventh to steal a 2-1 win.
Current seniors Victoria Hegstrom and Maddy Jans played in that game, as did current juniors Emma Olejniczak and Rachel Kinney. Saturday, those four — and the five other Jayettes who started — all played roles in emphatically earning revenge, as Perry rolled to a 7-1 win in their Class 4A Region 7 Semifinal.
The victory sets up a Regional Final Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the PAC, where No. 15 Perry (23-12) will host DC-G (16-20). The Fillies were third in 2011 and second in 2012, but have since rolled to three consecutive state championships.
Norwalk (20-16) had runners on base in every inning after collecting nine hits and drawing three walks from Olejniczak. The junior hurler struck out seven and received plenty of solid defensive help to limit the hosts to one run, with a wild second inning doing all the damage Olejniczak would need to collect the win in the ring.
The Warriors were the visiting team in the game and stranded a pair of runners in the first before threatening again by having runners on first and second with two outs in their next at-bat. Lead-off hitter Amron Born smacked a hard-hit ball between shortstop and third base, but Jo Diw ranged far to her right, backhanded the ball and then flipped to Jans at third for the force to end the danger.
Norwalk pitcher Alyx Witt gave her team a solid outing, striking out eight and walking just three, but she was rocked for six of the eight hits and two of the three walks she yielded in a wild second inning when Perry sent 11 batters to the plate and exploded for seven runs.
“She had allowed a lot of hits but hadn’t walked very many, which means she had a good strike-out pitch,” Perry head coach Tina Kenney said. “I told the girls we would have to be ready for that and to make sure we were swinging at good pitches. She (Witt) did a good job of keeping us off balance, but we got big hits when we needed them.”
Kinney singled to start the frame, with Olejniczak bunting her to second. Hegstrom singled Kinney home for a 1-0 lead, with Jans and Brooke Huntington drawing walks to load the bases. Maddie West, batting ninth in the lineup, came through with a RBI-single, with Diw singling in another run as the lead grew to 3-0 before a strikeout left the bases loaded with two down.
Alyssa Kruger stepped to the dish and cranked the first good pitch she saw high off the fence in left field for a double, clearing the bases and moving Perry’s advantage to 6-0. Kinney’s second hit of the inning followed to make it 7-0 and stun the home crowd into silence.
“I was just telling myself ‘I am gonna get a hit, I am gonna get a hit’ which is what I think every time before I step in that box,” West said. “We all have confidence in each other and we know any of us can make a big play or get a big hit.”
Kruger had struck out on a change-up in the first inning and said she was determined to make amends.
“I knew I had to get the job done, so I just went up there ready to swing at the first pitch I thought was a strike,” she said. “I knew I had nothing to lose, so I went up there just wanting to hit it hard.”
Witt showed poise by retiring 11 consecutive batters before Jans turned a 1-2 count into a walk in the sixth. A fielder’s choice followed, with singles from West and Diw loading the bases before Witt escaped further damage by recording her eighth strikeout.
The Warrior offense kept trying to chip away at their deficit but were repeatedly turned aside, with Olejniczak using strikeouts to strand two runners in both the third and fourth.
First baseman West knocked down a hard-hit ball and stepped on the bag for an out in the fifth, then caught a pop-up to strand yet another Warrior before the hosts finally got on the board — and not without some controversy — in the top of the sixth.
Abby McBee singled with one down and went to third when Briley Sodergren doubled just out of the reach of a diving Kinney in right field. A pop fly to Diw created the second out, with Ryley Harris hitting a big-hopper between short and third. Diw ran to her right to collect the ball, then alertly sprinted to the base path to tag Sodergren, who was racing toward third base.
McBee had broken for home on contact and was ruled to have touched the plate before Diw tagged Sodergren, giving Norwalk their sole run on a bang-bang call.
A fly out to Kruger in center and a ground out to Sid Vancil at second made for two quick outs in the seventh before Courtney Westvold doubled to left-center. Olejniczak then whiffed Shelbi Stogdill for the final out to move the Jayettes to within one win of their first state tourney appearance since 1999.
The Perry infield handled 10 chances without miscue while the outfield — which has committed just two errors in 35 games — had no trouble with their four chances, bringing a smile to Kenney’s face.
“I feel that it goes back to fundamentals, which we work on an awful lot,” she explained. “I know it gets kind of mundane for the girls, but it means you make the routine plays without thinking about it, and then, when the big play comes along, you can make it because you have the confidence you are going to.
“We talk all the time about how nothing is insignificant, that every little thing matters,” Kenney concluded. “You might think some little play in the second inning might not be that big of a deal, but it might change something later on — every single play is important.”
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