EAST PEORIA — Beecher senior catcher A.J. Picicco, similar to any other softball player, has dreamt of the moment she faced in Friday’s IHSA Class 2A State Semifinal against Rockridge — at the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth inning of a tie ballgame.
While Picicco’s dreams probably never ended with the result that she got on Friday, she was surely satisfied with it.
Picicco patiently drew an RBI walk that scored Christina Lorenzatti, the eventual game-winning run, as the Bobcats secured a spot in Saturday’s championship game at Eastside Centre in East Peoria with a 5-4 win.
“When I came in the dugout after, I told (the team), ‘What does it, does it. I don’t care how I get on base, we scored the run,’” Picicco said. “A grand slam, double or triple would have been great, but it doesn’t matter because we scored the run.”
Friday’s contest was a rematch of last year’s state championship game, one that the Rockets won 5-2, which gave the Bobcats even more motivation to earn the win Friday.
“We were coming for blood,” senior third baseman Ellie Lee said. “We wanted to beat them because of what happened last year, and it was definitely a lot more intense. I’m glad we kept the energy up and we came through.”
Like last year’s game, the Rockets struck first with a home run off Bobcats pitcher Kayla Hon as leadoff Amelia Thomas opened the game with a solo shot to left field to quickly give the Rockets a 1-0 lead.
Hon didn’t allow the leadoff homer to rattle her whatsoever. She immediately caught fire in the circle and she retired the next 11 Rockets hitters and didn’t allow another hit until the sixth inning.
“Last year, it was a three-run homer, this year was just a solo shot,” Bobcats coach Kevin Hayhurst said. “(Hon) has been around us to see (our lineup) one through nine and she had the confidence we would score some runs along the way.”
Hon said the key for her to be able to settle in was getting ahead of the count routinely.
“I just realized that it wasn’t going to be an easy game and I was going to have to go at each batter like it was the best batter on the team,” Hon said. “I just had to get that first pitch strike.”
As Hon settled in, the Bobcats offense started to find a rhythm and took advantage of a Rockets error to tie the game at one. Lee led the inning off with a single and Abby Shepard, who pinch ran for Lee, scored the Bobcats’ first run.
Lee said that as both a senior leader and the team’s cleanup hitter, it was her job to get the ‘Cats into gear.
“I know my team leans on me a lot to get hits in important games like this,” Lee said.
The Bobcats reached peak offensive performance in the fifth inning, when they broke out for three runs on RBI hits from Lorenzatti, Kaylie Sippel and Alyssa Oldenburg.
Picicco said Hayhurst told the team beforehand they just needed to come out with plenty of energy and things would take care of themselves from there, like they did in that three-run fifth.
“We knew they would have a strong defense and strong offense,” Picicco said. “We just had to come out with a lot of energy, put the ball in play and they would eventually make a mistake or the balls would find holes.”
Lee said that energy became more and more contagious as the Bobcats started to break out collectively at the plate.
“The energy in the dugout was awesome,” Lee said. “These girls are amazing to be around. We’re always hyping each other up in the dugout and picking each other up when something doesn’t go our way.”
Things didn’t go the Bobcats’ way in the top of the sixth, when the Rockets tied it back up with one swing of the bat, a three-run homer from Lexi Hines.
The seemingly always-composed Hon didn’t let the big hit affect her, however, as she was able to get out of the frame without allowing anymore runs.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if they hit five home runs, she would have remained the same,” Picicco, who serves as Hon’s catcher, said. “She’s just so focused. She’s not the kind of pitcher you can get down. She stays in there and does her thing.”
The Bobcats quickly went back to work in the sixth. Chandler Claus singled, and after a Margaret Landis strikeout, Lorenzatti walked and Sippel reached on an error. After Lee hit into a fielder’s choice that saw Claus retired at home, Picicco strolled to the dish with a chance to play hero.
Rather than chase a pitch out of the zone, Picicco patiently waited for a pitch to hit that never came. Instead, she took the stroll to first base after drawing the most exciting walk imaginable, something that Hayhurst has come to expect from his senior backstop.
“What patience that was,” Hayhurst said. “She’s been a quiet leader for us all year. She does a real nice job behind the plate and has been really, really clutch all year in offensive situations.”
In the seventh, Hon retired the first two batters with relative ease before Thomas socked her second double of the game. But one batter later, Hon struck out Lea Kendall to end the game and send the Bobcats to the championship for the third year in a row.
For Hon, who has lost just one game in three years of postseason play, a strikeout wasn’t even her intention.
“I was just trying to get her to pop up, not trying to strike her out, because that usually doesn’t go well,” Hon said. “I was trying to get her to put it in play so my teammates could make a play.”
Picicco, who caught the game-winning strikeout pitch, said she immediately caught a powerful wave of feelings along with the last pitch.
“All kinds of emotions, especially since this coming game will be my last game with Kayla,” Picicco said. “We’ve played together forever, played travel together. It’s so exciting to do this with my best friends.”
Sippel was the lone Bobcat with more than a hit, collecting a pair of them and driving in a run. Lorenzatti doubled, scored twice and drove in a run. Landis doubled and scored and Oldenburg had a hit and two RBIs.
Hon allowed four earned runs on seven hits, a walk and 11 strikeouts.
The Bobcats will head back to East Peoria’s Eastside Centre today at 11 a.m. for the IHSA Class 2A State Championship game against Pinckneyville. A win would give them their second state title in the past three seasons.
For Lee, one of just four seniors on the Bobcats, the chance to end her career in a championship game is something she’ll never forget.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be able to go out of high school in a state championship softball game,” Lee said. “I’m real proud to have these girls next to me.”