ROCK FALLS – Up until a little over a month ago, Karlie Mellott enjoyed her spot as the leadoff hitter in the Golden Warriors softball lineup.
It made sense to get the Cornell-bound senior shortstop to the plate as many times as possible.
A brief trip to the DL, and the emergence of Erin Stroup as a table setter resulted in Mellott moving to the No. 3 spot.
As the Rock Falls Rockets found out during Saturday's 6-1 loss to the Warriors in the 3A Rock Falls Regional championship game, the lineup shuffle has turned out for the best.
Mellott came to plate four times against Rock Falls ace Michaela Ward with a total of five runners in scoring position.
Mellott delivered her first two times up, helping Sterling build an insurmountable lead with freshman Lexy Staples controlling the circle for Sterling (27-8)
Sterling advances to the Marengo Sectional where it will meet Burlington Central at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.
"I love being in those situations, and my teammates did a great job of getting on base," Mellott said. "I was glad that I was able to make good contact and drive a couple of them in. It adds pressure, but it's good pressure."
It wasn't the sort of pressure Ward (16-8) or Rock Falls (22-10) coach Kris Nunez wanted to be in. The hope had been to have the bases empty with Mellott batting.
"Give credit to the girls ahead of her, and she does such a great job hitting in that spot," Nunez said. "I thought Michaela pitched a really good game, they just took advantage of their chances, and we didn't."
Sterling scored twice in the first as Mellott scored Stroup with a triple to left. Lauren Fritz's ground out plated Mellott.
With Sterling winning the previous meeting 1-0, it seemed like that might be all the Warriors needed.
Ward stepped to the plate to start the second and erased those doubts. She lofted a pitch high to left field. The ball was pushed by the wind and landed over the fence.
"I put the pitch right in the spot I wanted," Staples said. "She went and got it. She's just a great hitter.
"It's weird, but I felt a little more relaxed after that. I was nervous at the start and walked the first batter. There was a lot of people, but once we scored some runs, it got easier out there."
Staples finished with 11 strikeouts and one walk. The home run proved to be the lone run, and she allowed only four other hits.
"I think that was her best game of the year," Mellott said. "It's not easy to be a freshman and pitch in a game like this. She didn't let the home run rattle her, and her changeup was working great."
The biggest jam for Staples came in the third, when back-to-back two-out singles by Kaylyn Booker and Paige Reynolds put runners on first and second.
A wild pitch moved them up another 60 feet, but Staples got Kara Nehrkorn to chase an outside pitch for the strikeout to end the inning.
"That's the momentum shift right there," Nunez said. "You get runners on second and third, and you expect to score. When you don't, the momentum goes straight to the other team."
The Warriors attacked in the bottom of the inning, as Stroup was hit by a pitch and Nadia Trujillo singled with one out.
That brought up Mellott, who doubled to score Stroup. Sterling added two more runs, as one runner scored after a dropped third strike, and then Mellott scored on a bunt by Shannon Long.
Sterling added one more run in the sixth when Gabby Sandoval scored on a wild pitch when the bases were loaded, and Mellot was at the plate.
On a sunny, hot day, Ward threw 62 pitches in the third and fourth innings combined, and finished with 122 pitches in six innings. Staples didn't reach 60 pitches until the fifth inning, and finished with 102.
Ward had 10 strikeouts, three walks and hit two batters.
"It came down to executing with runners on," Nunez said. "They did, and we didn't. We had a great year, and you have hand it to Sterling, they did what they had to do."
Star of the game: Karlie Mellott, Sterling, 2B, 3B, 2 RBIs, 2 runs
Key performers: Michaela Ward, Rock Falls, 6 IP, 5H, 10 SO, 3 BB, and had 2 H, HR, RBI at plate; Lexy Staples, Sterling, 7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 11 SO, 1 BB
Up next: 3A Marengo Sectional, Sterling vs. Burlington Central, 4:30 p.m. Tuesday