ROCK FALLS – The final image of Thursday's 3A Rock Falls Regional semifinal between the host Rockets and Mendota was of shortstop Chelsi Blair.
The junior ranged to her left on a hard hit by Mallary Phalen, scooped the ball off one bounce, and fired Phalen out at first.
It was a slick play, and one of only a few the Rockets' defense had to make because of a dominating performance by Michaela Ward in a 5-0 victory.
The Rockets advance to play Sterling in the regional championship game at 1 p.m. Saturday. It is the second year in a row that the two teams have met for a regional title.
"The thing about it is that when we play each other, it is always good softball," Rock Falls coach Kris Nunez said. "That's what makes it fun. We hope to be on the winning end this time, but it always ends up being a well-played game in front of a big crowd."
Sterling won last year's regional game 2-0. The Warriors also won the lone meeting this year, 1-0.
"The thing we have to do is focus on hitting," Ward said. "We've been slumping a little bit, but if we come out and hit, we believe we can do it."
If Ward pitches Saturday like she did against Mendota, the Warriors will be hard-pressed to score.
The Rock Falls junior – who set the program's single season strikeout record this season – fanned 15 Trojan batters. She struck out the side in the third, fourth and sixth innings, and had a streak of seven Ks that stretched from the end of the second to the start of fifth.
She allowed two hits, one a single during the first inning that was played Wednesday. After a scoreless first inning, the game was delayed by lightning and eventually postponed to Thursday.
"We just wanted to come out with a lot of energy," Ward said. "With starting and then having the long delay, we didn't want to come out flat and give them a chance."
The other hit was a double by Phalen to start the fifth. Phalen was later tagged out at the plate on a failed suicide-squeeze attempt.
The Rockets used some timely hitting and Mendota defensive miscues to get on the scoreboard against Mendota pitcher Taylor Browder.
Julie Dodd started the second with a single, and her courtesy runner Madason Shawn was moved to second on a bunt by Baylie Janssen. Jenny Lawson then grounded to short.
Brooke Stallings fielded the ball and threw Lawson out as Shawn broke for third. The throw back across the diamond was high and sailed out of play.
Kaylyn Booker added an RBI single later in the inning to put Rock Falls up 2-0.
"I thought Taylor pitched well enough today, but her defense let her down a bit," Mendota coach Joel Perez said. "You can't make mistakes against a team like this – and with a pitcher throwing like Ward – and have a much of a chance."
The Rockets scored two more runs in the third on a groundout by Dodd and a flyout by Janssen, and tacked on another unearned run in the fourth.
In all, Mendota had five errorsm, while the Rockets did not commit any.
And then it came to the end, with Blair's sparkling play at short.
"She can do some amazing things out there," Nunez said. "Sometimes she'll make a mistake, but she's always one of the players who wants to take a few more ground balls in practice."
Star of the game: Michaela Ward, Rock Falls, 6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 15 SO, 0 BB
Key performers: Kara Nehrkorn, Rock Falls, 2B, RBI, run; Mallary Phalen, Mendota, 2B
Up next: 3A Rock Falls Regional championship, Rock Falls vs. Sterling, 1 p.m. Saturday