KANKAKEE — Two years ago, Madi Bylak was a freshman utility player for Manteno looking to be the next in a line of legendary Panther softball players.
A lot can change in two years.
Bylak, who transferred to Bishop McNamara before her sophomore year, faced her former team in Friday’s IHSA Class 3A Bishop McNamara Regional championship. She slugged a pair of home runs, including a sixth inning grand slam, to help lift the Irish past the Panthers 11-4 and into next week’s sectional.
“It just felt amazing; I don’t know how else to say it,” Bylak said of her two-homer performance. “I couldn’t even handle the excitement; it was so crazy. That was the best feeling ever.”
Friday’s game was a heavyweight matchup that featured two of the top 20 schools in Class 3A. Both teams knew it would be a battle from the first pitch.
It was the Panthers who drew first blood, when Lanie Malone’s RBI triple scored Kaycie Wenzel to give the Panthers a 1-0 lead before they had an out.
But Irish hurler Jaelyn Vickery battled back and didn’t allow Malone to score as the Irish took to the plate with a 1-0 deficit.
They quickly changed the one-run deficit to a two-run lead with a three-run first, highlighted by a perfectly-executed suicide squeeze from three-hitter Gillian McDermott, scoring Vickery and setting the tone for the rest of the evening.
“For us, what I think was the best was the suicide squeeze,” Irish coach Laura Harms said. “That gave us momentum, and that was us trusting our girls. I think that’s what we’re about — being a good team, trusting each other and knowing we’ll do our jobs.”
The score remained 3-1 in favor of the Irish until Panthers catcher Lexi Bowdish opened the third inning with a towering home run over the left-center-field fence that cut the Irish lead in half. But again, Vickery hunkered down after allowing an early run and didn’t allow the Panthers to do any more damage in the inning.
“I just remembered that [Harms] trusted me enough to put me out there in the first place,” Vickery said. “We have a great defense and offense, and it’s a long game, so I knew we were good.”
Riley Ford drove in Kylie Sullivan with an RBI single to get the Irish their run back in the third, but in the fourth, the Panthers struck again. Malone opened the inning with a double, and after Bowdish was intentionally walked and Maddie Lacer drew a walk, pitcher Kori Fricke helped herself out with an RBI single.
Then for the third time, Vickery battled back and escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam with a double play and strikeout.
“I’m just so proud of Jaelyn because she’s not even a pitcher; she took on that role because that’s what we needed,” Harms said. “She hasn’t thrown that many pitches probably all season, and you could just see she’s just very stoic — she doesn’t get too high or too low, she just did what we needed.”
Leaving runners on base in high-leverage situations became an unfortunate theme for the Panthers. They stranded a runner on third base in three different innings and stranded five runners in scoring position on the evening.
“We pride ourselves on making the most out of as little as possible, so when we get runners in scoring position with no outs in the inning, we expect to get a couple or even pile them on,” Panthers coach Josh Carlile said. “That [fifth] inning, we just didn’t get that hit.”
Bylak tallied her first homer of the game in the bottom of the fifth with a solo shot that preceded another Irish run on a Panthers error. But the Panthers stayed close, thanks to a Malone RBI double in the top of the sixth that made it a 6-4 game.
And then Bylak struck again.
After singles from Leigha Campe, McDermott and Sullivan, Bylak came to the plate with the bases full and one out. She took a Fricke offering and deposited it deep over the right-center field fence and jubilantly rounded the bases after putting the Irish ahead by a commanding 10-4 lead.
Bylak wasn’t shy to admit that she felt more nerves than usual, even for a regional title, because she was facing her old school. But she was able to turn those nerves into determination.
“My nerves were high before the game, but I settled in, stayed calm and played smooth the entire game,” Bylak said.
Harms said once Bylak settled in, she knew her shortstop had the potential to have a special moment like the one she ended up having.
“I think she understands how big it is, coming from Manteno and wanting to do well, but not putting too much pressure on herself,” Harms said. “To step up in that situation and because of the past [at Manteno], that’s awesome.”
After the Irish tacked on another insurance run, Vickery recovered after a leadoff Fricke single to get her second double play ball of the game before wrapping up the regional title with a strikeout.
The win gave the Irish their seventh regional title in the past eight seasons. But in a local rivalry game that saw hundreds of people flock to the diamond, Harms said this one is a little extra special.
“Manteno’s a really good team and we don’t play them very much,” Harms said. “To play a regional against Manteno, where the girls have friends that they’ve been teammates with or played with, it’s really special.”
For Manteno, the loss ended the high school careers of five seniors that had played vital roles for three seasons on the Panthers’ varsity squad, giving Carlile a tough goodbye after the game.
“It’s hard. I’ve coached those girls for seven, eight years,” Carlile said. “They put everything they could into the program and I hate it when it ends like that.”
Vickery allowed four earned runs on 11 hits and three walks in the complete game outing. At the plate, she went 3-for-4 with a double and a run. Bylak accounted for five Irish RBIs with her two homeruns. Ford went 3-for-4 with a double, a run and two RBIs. Sullivan and Kara Kleinert each doubled and drove in a run, while Sullivan added three runs.
Fricke also tossed a complete game and allowed eight earned runs on 15 hits. She had a pair of hits and an RBI at the dish. Malone had a triple, two doubles, a run and two RBIs. Bowdish homered in her only official at-bat, adding a hit by pitch and a pair of intentional walks. Sierra Cureton and Kaycie Wenzel had two hits apiece, and Wenzel also scored.
The Irish will take on the host Hilltoppers at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in sectional action at Joliet Catholic.