EAST PEORIA – A well-known law of nature for Tinley Park softball the last few years: When the ball goes into the air anywhere near the infield, there’s a good chance it will land in Alyssa Gunther’s glove.
Never was that fact more clearly displayed than during the sixth inning of the Titans’ 5-4 win over Sterling in the Class 3A state third-place game at EastSide Centre.
With the score tied at four, the Golden Warriors (28-5) were threatening to break the game open with McKenna Pearson standing on second and Gabi Trujillo on first with one out.
Cassidy Gillihan, who an inning earlier punched a bunt between the pitcher and third baseman that allowed a run to score from second, was coming up.
Gillihan, a threat to bunt or to slap a hit into the outfield, was likely the last hitter that pitcher Sarah Gillespie wanted to see.
After getting ahead in the count 2-1, Gillihan slapped a bloop toward shallow left field.
Left fielder Kate Sebastian broke late and didn’t have a chance. The ball looked about to drop when Gunther zoomed over and dove away from the infield to make the catch. She then had the presence of mind to turn and fire a throw from one knee to second base before Pearson could get back safely.
Threat over. Momentum switched.
“We’ve grown used to knowing that, when the ball is in the air, that it’s going to end up in Alyssa’s glove,” Tinley Park coach Wendy Podbielniak said. “We got to state because of our defense, and it was our defense that won the game for us today.”
“I didn’t think there was any way that I was going to get to it at first,” Gunther said. “I had to try because the team needed the out. When I made the catch, I knew I needed to check the runner because I thought they’d be taging. It turned out she had went too far off the bag, and I made the throw.”
Things got worse for Sterling in the top of the seventh, and once again it was Gunther in the middle of the action.
With one out, Gunther came to the plate and stroked a double off Sterling ace Stephanie Kester (24-5).
After Lexxi Lux hit a sizzling liner that Priscilla Aponte snagged from the air, Sam Alberto came to the plate.
The tall, strong Alberto had two hits already, including her 10th home run of the season in the sixth, which pulled Tinley Park within a run.
“You try to pitch around them [Gunther and Alberto], but you can’t always do that,” Kester said. “Then you just do your best to try and not give them anything good to hit.”
Alberto delivered with a double that scored Gunther, which proved to be the difference.
“I knew that when I was standing on second and Sam was coming up that she’d get me in,” Gunther said. “It’s always fun when she steps to the plate because you don’t know what she is going to do next.”
Sterling didn’t go down without a fight.
Karlie Mellott opened the seventh with her second extra-base hit with a double.
Freshman Shannon Long, who had singled two runs in during the fifth inning, came to the plate and sacrifice bunted Mellott over to third.
That brought up Kester, who was batting .500 for the postseason. She fell behind 1-2, and then appeared to fight off a pitch by blooping it foul toward the third-base dugout.
Alberto ranged over from third and made the catch while leaning over the rail with nothing but concrete below.
“That play they made in the dugout was a heck of a play,” Sterling catcher Bailey Oetting said. “You have to give them credit. They made some really big plays. We lost today, but we played really hard and really well.
“We lost two games down here by a run each. It shows that all four teams here deserved to be here, and any of the four could have won it all.”
Aponte went seven pitches deep against Gillespie before grounding out to end the inning, the game and the season.
“I’m so proud of the whole group,” Sterling coach Rick Henderson said. “They showed the heart that they’ve played with all season. The never stopped fighting. A few plays were the difference, and that’s just the game of softball.”
Sterling scored a lone run in the first as Mellott opened the inning with a triple.
After a strikeout, Kester hit a ball into center field that was caught by Mary Psaltakis, who fired a throw home.
Mellott held at third, but the throw skipped between the legs of catcher Alex Laphan. The ball bounced to the backstop as Mellott cruised in to score.
Tinley Park jumped ahead 2-1 in the third on RBI hits by Gunther and Lux.
Sterling took momentary control in the fifth with three runs on the Gillihan RBI bunt and the two-run single by Long.
The lead was short-lived as Alberto homered on the first pitch of the sixth. Tinley Park scored later in the inning on a RBI single by Megan Laib.
“Coming back right away was really big,” Gunther said. “At the beginning of the season, we weren’t hitting anything, so we depended totally on our defense. Today, the defense made the plays, and the offense got the big hits when we needed them.”
Key performers: Sam Alberto, Tinley Park, 3 hits, HR, 2 RBI; Shannon Long, Sterling, 2 hits, 2 RBI; Karlie Mellott, Sterling, 2 hits, 2B, 3B.