JOLIET — When Bishop McNamara and Joliet Catholic squared off in regular season action last month, the Irish erased a five-run seventh inning deficit with a 7-6 win. After the Angels scored three runs and had runners on the corners in the seventh inning of Thursday’s IHSA Class 3A Joliet Sectional semifinal, it looked as if they were bound to return the favor.
But Irish first baseman Jaelyn Vickery would have none of that.
Vickery made a brilliant diving catch on a laser beam down the first-base line off the bat of Jen Krizka to preserve an 8-7 victory and give the Irish a spot in Saturday’s sectional championship.
For Vickery, the catch was the least she could do after an 0-for-4 day at the plate.
“My teammates did a great job picking me up today,” Vickery said. “What I was thinking is, ‘If I’m not going to do it on offense, I need to do it on defense.’”
The Irish trailed 1-0 through the first couple of innings but caught the hottest of hot streaks to bust things open in the bottom of the third.
Senior third baseman Gillian McDermott started the fun when she took a two-strike Britney Lewinski offering and sent it over the left-field fence for a two-run home run.
McDermott said her approach at the plate was to move Leigha Campe from second base to third but she wasn’t going to complain about the end result.
“I was just trying to do my job, and I knew the girls behind me would do theirs,” McDermott said.
The senior’s homer provided a spark for the Irish that turned into a full-on fire two batters later. Madi Bylak went first-pitch swinging and clubbed a two-run bomb, her third home run in the past two games.
Bylak credited McDermott’s homer as being the catalyst for her own dinger.
“She lit the whole dugout up and sparked us up,” Bylak said. “Everyone got excited, and we kept the momentum going.”
Irish coach Laura Harms couldn’t help but chuckle as Bylak kept up her hot streak and later said her laughter stemmed from a conversation she had with her shortstop seconds before.
“She hadn’t had the greatest at-bats her last two at-bats, so I told her, ‘[Lewinski] is going to throw it inside, and if you love it, you better attack it because if you don’t hit the first pitch, I’m bunting you,’” Harms said. “I had to laugh because she probably didn’t want to bunt.”
The Irish tacked on three more runs to give pitchers Vickery and Jocelyn Clodi a 7-1 lead. The pair started the game by alternating innings at pitcher and first base during the first four frames and then swapped slightly more frequently during the final three innings.
“Jaelyn and I compliment each other really well, so it works out,” Clodi said. “She throws speed and has really good placement high and low to change their eyes; I come in with a changeup and switch speeds.”
Vickery said although it’s not a traditional practice, the back and forth seemed to work well for the Irish.
“We work really well together, kind of a yin and yang,” Vickery said. “It’s definitely an adjustment, but at the end of the day, we do it for our team and trust Coach Laura.”
Harms said the two pitchers weren’t the only ones that deserved proper praise. Catcher Kara Kleinert was tasked with the difficult job of working with the two pitchers that attack hitters with wildly different approaches.
“Catchers never get the praise or anything; everyone always sees the pitchers,” Harms said. “Kara’s dripping sweat after games, and I think to handle both pitchers, mentally and physically … she does a great job.”
McDermott said no matter which of her two teammates is in the circle, she keeps the same confidence at the hot corner.
“They’re just ballers. They come out as gamers and just come out ready to pitch, ready to play” McDermott said. “Jaelyn’s not necessarily a pitcher, but she comes out here and gives it her all, and Jocelyn, even if I get on her, she always comes back with strikes.”
Vickery was sent to the circle to start the bottom of the seventh in an 8-4 game, but the Angels were able to mount a rally, scoring three times to chase Vickery back to first and bring Clodi to the rubber to face arguably the Angels’ top hitter in Krizka.
“On that last batter, I knew [Krizka] was a home run hitter, and if I left it fat, she would take it yard,” Clodi said. “But I have the best [fielders]; I trusted my teammates 100 percent that we would make a play and win this game.”
Sure enough, that defensive help came when Vickery and her uber-quick reflexes dove just past first base on Krizka’s screamer, securing both the ball and the win.
Vickery said she remembered Krizka’s previous at-bats against Clodi, which featured what seemed like a countless amount of foul balls to the first base side and used that memory to her advantage.
“It’s crazy because right before that play, that girl was fouling everything off, and I told [second baseman Riley Ford] I was going to play back in case she hit a line drive,” Vickery said. “I just trusted my instincts, and it worked for me.”
While McDermott and Bylak’s two-run shots led the power surge, Leigha Campe was steady, going 4 for 4 and scoring a run. Kylie Sullivan and Ford each had two hits and a run, and Sullivan also notched an RBI. The Kleinert sisters, Kara and Kenna, each had a pair of hits.
Clodi earned the win and allowed two runs (one earned) on six hits and two walks. Vickery allowed four earned runs on five hits and two walks.
The Irish will take on Ottawa at 11 a.m. Saturday at Joliet Catholic for the sectional championship. A win would give the Irish their fourth sectional plaque in five years, after they broke their three-peat streak with a loss in the sectional semifinals last season.