STERLING – The ball rolled quickly between pitcher Michaela Ward and third baseman Linsey Brown with one out in the fifth.
By the time shortstop Jordan Giddings charged up to field the ball, Sterling’s Cassidy Gillihan was standing on first base with a bunt single.
With the lineup flipping over to fellow speedster Karlie Mellott, it was clear that the Rock Falls Rockets were in trouble for the first time during Saturday’s 3A Sterling Regional championship game.
Trouble turned to disaster after Gillihan stole second, which was followed by a Mellott RBI single.
That proved to be all the Warriors needed in a 2-0 win. Sterling (25-3) advances to play Boylan at 4 p.m. today at the 3A Rochelle Sectional.
“Once Cassidy stole second, I knew that I had to get the ball into the outfield,” Mellott said. “We know our speed puts a lot pressure on teams.”
“Both teams were trying to be aggressive,” Rock Falls coach Kris Nunez said. “We took some risks, and we got caught. They took some with some stolen bases, and it paid off.”
The single by Mellott put Sterling up 1-0 in the fifth. Mellott tried to make more happen by stealing second and third, but Ward was able to strike out Shannon Long and get Stephanie Kester to pop out.
Rock Falls (25-5) looked like it was ready to answer in the bottom of the inning when Paige Reynolds sliced a single into right field. Reynolds, who also had a double in the third inning, had two of Rock Falls’ three hits against Kester.
“I never hit Stephanie,” Reynolds said. “I always go after her rise ball, and she gets me out. I’ve been working on taking the ball to right field, and I just went up there to be aggressive.”
Looking to get something going, Nunez called for the hit-and-run with Linsey Brown at the plate.
Brown hit a bloop toward short left field, but Mellott ranged back from her shortstop position to make the catch and then double off Reynolds, who was running on contact.
“The double play was big for us today,” Kester said. “Making those plays gave us a lot confidence and kept them from having a big inning.”
Priscilla Aponte gave Sterling some breathing room in the sixth with a leadoff home run to left field.
“I know that pitchers like to work outside on me,” Aponte said. “I was just trying to stay back on it”
Aponte made her first big impact of the game in the fourth inning. Playing third base, she snagged a line drive out of the air off of Ward’s bat. She then doubled off Giddings at first base.
“I can’t fault Jordan on that,” Nunez said. “I didn’t think there was any way that ball wasn’t going into the outfield. Aponte just made an excellent play.”
“We didn’t get a lot of hard hits today,” Ward said. “Stephanie is just such a great pitcher. The last time we played them, we hit the ball pretty well. Unfortunately, today we didn’t do that.”
Kester (21-3) allowed three hits while striking out two and walking four.
“I thought Steph had maybe her best game of the year,” Henderson said. “She really was confident out there. We’ve come to expect those kind of performances from her.”
Ward (11-3), who sat out Wednesday’s game with a hamstring injury, had seven strikeouts and three walks.
Star of the game: Stephanie Kester, Sterling, 3-hitter, 2 SO, 4 BB
Key performers: Priscilla Aponte, solo HR; Paige Reynolds, 2-for-2, 2B
Up next: 3A Rochelle Sectional semifinal, Sterling vs. Boylan, 4:30 p.m. Tuesday