DIXON – For the first time in a while, Sterling softball's Lauren Fritz wore a big, genuine smile on her face.
Fritz had been struggling at the plate for several games, and was battling through a frustrating slump that tested her confidence over several games.
But with the help of a different hitting drill in practice, she broke out of that slump in a big way in an 11-3 win over Northern Illinois Big-12 West Division rival Dixon on Tuesday.
Hitting from the seventh spot in the lineup, the junior went 3-for-4, including an inside-the-park home run.
"That felt great," Fritz said after exhaling a breath of relief. "I've been hitting every day since Thursday, and I've been working on a lot of things, so that felt really good to do that."
Fritz started hitting drills on Thursday and spent a good portion of the weekend working independently on ways to improve her stance, mechanics and stroke, with a few teammates.
Instead of hitting in the batting cages, Fritz worked on her hitting by doing a lot of soft toss drills from home plate, instead of hitting into a fence or a net, while teammates shagged the balls.
"We did it on the field so I could see where my hits would go," Fritz said. "I worked a lot with keeping my shoulder in and driving all the way through the ball.
"It helped me a lot with confidence to see where I was hitting the ball, rather than just hitting in the cage."
The extra work paid dividends from the start as she hit two singles in her first two at-bats. And when she led off the fifth, she took the first pitch of the at-bat all the way to the left-center field wall. It rolled long enough for her to come all the way around the bases for her first home run of the season.
The run was the seventh of the game for the Golden Warriors (14-6, 5-1 NIB-12), who scored four runs in the second and added two more in the third. Sterling tacked on three more in the fifth and two more in the sixth.
Lexy Staples was dominant in the circle for Sterling, striking out 12 batters while walking three and allowing no runs and just two hits in 6 2/3 innings of work.
"She was great today," catcher Nadia Trujillo said. "I've been catching her for a while now. We're on the same page. We have a good relationship."
Erin Smith (4-8) went seven innings for the Duchesses (6-15) and allowed 11 runs (six earned) on 13 hits, but was the victim of several defensive miscues.
The Duchesses made four errors in the game, three of which extended innings and directly allowed runs to score.
"We have to be more aggressive defensively," Dixon coach Chris Jones said. "We gave them four unearned runs in the second inning. It puts us in a hole, and we spend the rest of the game trying to dig ourselves out."
They made some headway in the fifth when Sterling made a pitching change and scored three runs off Cheyenne Harrington. Harrington allowed the runs on four walks and a hit. She got one out before the Golden Warriors switched back to Staples (14-6) who closed the door.
"We played seven innings against Sterling," Jones said. "That's a start. We've only done that a couple times over the past few years. They don't give you much."
Star of the game: Lexy Staples, Sterling, 12 strikeouts, 2 hits, 0 runs.
Key performers: Nadia Trujillo, Sterling, 4-for-5, 3B, 2B, 2 RBI; Lauren Fritz, Sterling, 3-for-4, HR; Jessica VanOosten, Dixon, 2-for-4, RBI.
Up next: Sterling at Rock Island, 4:30 p.m. today; Geneseo at Dixon, 4:30 p.m. Thursday.