ROCK FALLS – In the midst of some recent struggles, the Rock Falls softball team was looking for a fast start Friday afternoon in a nonconference home game against LaSalle-Peru.
But while the Rockets got that quick start by scoring a pair of runs in the first inning, they couldn't keep it up. Defense was the main culprit, as four Rock Falls errors led to four unearned runs in a 4-3 Cavalier victory, Rock Falls' third straight loss and fourth in the last five games.
"Our energy just stopped tonight," Rock Falls coach Kris Nunez said. "At the beginning, everybody was focused and cheering and totally into it. Then, by the third inning, there was just a complete lack of focus on what we needed to be doing.
"We have to stop letting other teams take the wind out of our sails, just fight through the adversity like we did earlier in the season. We have to find that inner spark to get the job done."
Defense, and the ability to make the most of a few extra outs, ultimately won the game for LaSalle-Peru (12-8). The Cavaliers robbed Rock Falls of three hits – one of which would have given the Rockets a lead in the fourth inning – and turned a 5-4-3 double play around the infield to end the fifth.
While the Cavs were making every play possible, the Rockets (12-5) struggled to do the same. A dropped fly ball near the right-field foul line with runners on second and third in the top of the third allowed two runs to score, then that run came around to score on an RBI single by Samantha George.
"The girls are taught to run everything out, to execute until they're told to stop," LaSalle-Peru coach Mike Schmidt said, "and that really helps us take advantage of mistakes by our opponents."
It was a two-out error that led to the go-ahead run in the sixth. The speedy Addison Lijewski, who was a pest all game long from the No. 9 spot, reached after her grounder to third was bobbled. She then stole second for the second time in the game, and scored when leadoff hitter Whitney Lippert lined a single to right-center.
It was a little redemption for Lippert, who struck out with the chance to drive in Lijewski two innings earlier.
"I was nervous, because I struck out the last time," Lippert said. "I just wanted to put the ball in play, and I knew that if I found a hole somewhere, Addison would score, because that's pretty much what she does when she gets on base for us."
The Rockets went down in order in the bottom of the sixth, then after Michaela Ward pitched around a one-out dropped third strike in the top of the seventh, Rock Falls had one last chance.
Pinch hitter Jenny Lawson drew a walk to lead off the inning, then Taylor Anderson re-entered to run. Anderson advanced to second on Baylie Janssen's sacrifice bunt, but was stranded there as Chelsi Blair flew out to center and Kaylyn Booker popped out to second.
Mackenzie May (1-0) got the win in relief of starter Kristi Wallin, tossing three shutout innings and allowing one hit and one walk. Neither Cavalier pitcher struck out a Rocket hitter, but they did induce 11 flyouts or popouts and stranded five Rock Falls runners in scoring position.
Ward (10-3) was the tough-luck loser, allowing five hits and four walks while striking out eight in a complete-game effort. She threw 87 of her 131 pitches for strikes, and never had an inning where she threw more than 10 balls.
"This type of game, losing it like we did, it's just frustrating for all of us," senior Paige Reynolds said. "We had a great start and got our energy up right away, but we didn't pick each other up later in the game. We just need to be more mentally tough, and fight through things as a team."
It didn't seem like that would be an issue early on. Blair led off with a sharp single on the first pitch in the bottom of the first, then moved to second on Booker's groundout and scored on Reynolds' line-drive base hit to right-center. Kara Nehrkorn then smashed a two-out double to right-center to drive in Reynolds for a 2-0 Rocket lead.
Rock Falls then answered the Cavs' three unearned runs in the third with a run in the fourth, as Destinee Schumaker singled with one out, went to second on Anderson's groundout, then moved to third on Janssen's infield single. With Blair at the plate, Schumaker scored on a wild pitch to tie the game, then Blair smacked a ball down the right-field line for what looked to be a go-ahead run-scoring hit.
But LaSalle-Peru right fielder Kylea Starkey never gave up on the play, and ended the inning with a diving catch to match the leaping grab by third baseman Taylor Naumann to rob Ward of a single to lead off the inning.
"Early in the season, we gave a couple of games away with poor defense," Schmidt said, "so we've really been working hard on improving in the field and cutting down our mistakes. It paid off today, because the defense won this game for us."
LaSalle-Peru 4, Rock Falls 3
Star of the game: Whitney Lippert LP, 2 hits, run, go-ahead RBI single in sixth inning
Key performers: Addison Lijewski, LP, on base 3 times, 2 runs, 2 SBs; Mackenzie May, LP, 3 shutout innings of relief, allowed 1 hit, 1 walk; Michaela Ward, RF, complete game, allowed 0 ER, 5 H, 8 SO, 4 BB; Paige Reynolds, RF, 2-for-3, run, RBI
Up next: Rock Falls at Guilford, doubleheader, 10 a.m. Saturday