EAST PEORIA — During the course of the past two postseasons, Beecher has ended the seasons of 13 different teams.
But at Saturday’s Class 2A state championship, it was the Bobcats’ turn to finish on the wrong side.
Sarah Bisland’s three-run homer in the first inning put the Bobcats in an early hole that eventually proved too big to dig out of as their quest for a second straight state title was ended at the hands of Rockridge, which defeated the Bobcats 5-2.
Beecher ends its season at 32-3 with a second consecutive trip to the peak of high school softball in Illinois.
“We’ve been on the other side of the coin a few times, and this one’s a tough one to take,” Beecher coach Kevin Hayhurst said. “It just didn’t feel like we were ever in control of this game. We were always fighting, fighting to get back into it, climbing uphill.”
How it happened
Bobcats starter Kayla Hon got off to an uncharacteristic start, walking leadoff hitter Amelia Thomas to start the game. The next pitch hit pitcher Grace Preston.
After a sacrifice bunt and a popup, Hon threw two quick strikes to Bisland, looking as if she would escape the first unscathed. But Bisland battled back, forcing a full count while fouling off an additional five pitches.
On the 11th pitch of the at-bat, Bisland squared up Hon’s offering and sent it over the left-field fence to give the Rockets an early 3-0 lead.
“The previous runners getting on base, it’s tough when you’ve got a walk and a hit batsman,” Hayhurst said. “And give credit to [Bisland]. She squared that one up and got out to a three-run lead. That was a lot of momentum to start the game.”
But the Bobcats, who won last year’s championship in comeback fashion, chopped at the deficit right away.
After a Margaret Landis double and a Haley Dobson single, Kaylie Sippel drove in Landis with a single, and Ellie Lee singled to drive in Dobson, cutting the lead to 3-2 after the first inning.
And after the homer, Hon was able to settle in nicely.
She allowed two runs on five hits during the final six innings, finishing with a line of five earned runs on six hits and two walks.
“We know what she’s capable of. We won this thing last year, and she was on a six-game run again this year,” Hayhurst said. “She’s good to have in the middle of the diamond. She doesn’t get rattled.”
While the Bobcats had no trouble getting on base the rest of the game, they just couldn’t come up with timely base knocks. They outhit the Rockets 7-6, but stranded seven runners, four of them in scoring position.
Whenever Preston needed an out, she got it, thanks to the near flawless defense behind her. She finished with a line of two earned runs on seven hits and two walks.
“We got some runners on, and, boy, we hit some hard balls,” Hayhurst said. “They made some plays and squashed our rallies. We had some chances, that’s for sure, to put more on the board.”
End of the road
The loss ends the careers of seniors Kate Landis, Dobson and Kimberly Brown.
Landis, a four-year starter at shortstop, finishes her career with seven home runs, 106 RBIs, 209 runs and hit at least .381 every season, including a .481 average as a senior.
When asked about watching his senior shortstop walk off the field for the final time, Hayhurst fought back tears while struggling to find the words to explain the mark she’s left on the program.
Looking toward the future
Although they came up a sliver short in their repeat effort, Hayhurst was nothing but proud of his team and the program as a whole.
It was the head coach’s fifth trip to state in 16 years with the Bobcats, and after two consecutive title game appearances, he thinks his already elite program could be taking an even larger step forward.
“I think the younger kids coming up from junior high get excited, and they’re putting in their work and things like that,” Hayhurst said. “They see what’s going on with the community, and it’s surely a nice day for our softball program in its entirety.