EAST PEORIA — All postseason, Bishop McNamara softball coach Laura Harms has said the Irish have continued to advance by, “playing right at the right time.”
But on Friday, the Irish finally met a team that was playing even better, as Carlee Jo Clark allowed just three hits in a stellar, complete-game outing and the Irish had an uncharacteristic two errors in what resulted in a 6-2 Spartans victory in their IHSA Class 3A State Semifinal game at Eastside Centre in East Peoria.
“We can’t win with three hits and two errors, and we know that,” Harms said. “We’ve been playing right at the right time, but it was a bad time to not hit, make some errors and give them a couple bases.”
Both Irish errors occurred in the top of the first, an inning in which the Spartans scored a pair of runs and seized every ounce of early momentum from the first at-bat, a leadoff double from Kristina Sherwin.
Sherwin scored on a single from Bridget Rather, and after a deep flyout to center off the bat of Clark, Irish starting pitcher Jocelyn Clodi and first baseman Jaelyn Vickery swapped positions, as has become tradition during the postseason.
After a pair of walks, Vickery got out of the inning without allowing any further damage and got through the next three innings without allowing any runs.
It was the bottom of the third when the Irish turned things around and finally got on the board when cleanup hitter Kylie Sullivan smacked a two-run single to score Vickery and Leigha Campe and tie the game at two.
Sullivan continued her spectacular play in the next inning, when she caught a flyball and then threw out Lucy Yunker at home for an inning-ending double play.
Harms said Sullivan’s back-to-back plays were an indicator that the Irish belonged in Friday’s game, although they just couldn’t keep that playmaking up for all seven innings.
“I think that shows that we’re a good team,” Harms said. “We made a couple of mistakes, but she showed we can rally.
“But then toward the end, we showed that if you struggle, you can continue to struggle.”
That end Harms spoke of was a four-run Spartans fifth inning, which eventually proved to be the game’s difference-maker, with all four runs charged to Vickery before Clodi came back in the circle to record the final two outs and end the inning.
The Spartans were able to get a hold of a few pitches, as evidenced by their three extra-base hits on the afternoon. But even when they weren’t getting good wood on the ball, it seemed as if the Spartans’ balls had eyes when leaving their bats, while the Irish couldn’t help but hit the ball right into the Spartans’ gloves.
“They were hitting shots, hitting gaps and all of ours were going right at them,” Harms said. “It’s hard and you feel it when things aren’t going your way.”
After the Spartans regained their lead, the Irish were never able to mount any serious threats over their final nine outs. In fact, Clark seemed to get better as the game went on, as she allowed just one walk and no hits over those final three frames, mixing a devastating changeup with a sizzling fastball to keep the Irish guessing.
The Irish had seen Clark earlier in the season and tagged her for 16 hits and nine runs over five innings in an April victory, but Harms said the Spartans’ senior showed her growth on Friday.
“The first time we played, we hit her, took her out early and won 9-6,” Harms said. “But that was earlier in the year and she’s gotten better as she goes. She was throwing her (changeup) any time she needed a strike.”
Campe had a pair of hits and scored. Vickery walked, was hit by a pitch and scored. Sullivan’s two-run single was the only other Irish hit.
Clodi totaled three innings in the circle and allowed two earned runs on three hits and a walk. Vickery pitched four innings and allowed four earned runs on seven hits and six walks (two intentional).
The Irish will be back in action this morning when they take on Mt. Zion at 9 a.m. in the third-place game back at Eastside Centre.
Harms said Friday’s result reminded her of the Irish’s 2015 season that also resulted in a third-place finish at state.
“In 2015, that was our whole conversation — we lost to a really good pitcher our first game, so it’s kind of the same,” Harms said. “It’s way different coming home on a win than coming home on a loss, so we just have to pull together.
“We’re here for a reason — we think we’re the better team, but you’ve still gotta show up and play.”