MARENGO – When Abri Hale took a hearty cut, it was enough to keep the Sterling softball team's season alive and well.
The sophomore right fielder's two-out, two-strike triple drove in Nadia Trujillo in the bottom of the eighth inning to lift the Golden Warriors to an 8-7 victory against Burlington Central in a 3A Marengo Sectional semifinal on Tuesday afternoon.
Sterling (28-8) advances to its third consecutive sectional championship game. On Saturday, it will meet the winner of today's game between Marengo and Belvidere.
"This is pretty big," senior shortstop Karlie Mellott said. "It was a team win today. It was across the board, up and and down the lineup. [Freshman pitcher] Lexy [Staples] had a little bit of a struggle in the first inning, but the bats supported her, the defense supported her – it was really a team win."
The game-deciding inning did not get off to a promising start for the Golden Warriors as Mellott, the team's top offensive threat, struck out looking. Trujillo reached on a base hit, but the next batter, Lauren Fritz, made the second out with a fly ball to right.
That brought up Hale, who was 0-for-3 up to that point, with a walk and a run scored. With a one-ball, two-strike count, Hale smashed an offering from Central pitcher Brooke Gaylord into the left-center field gap. Trujillo scored easily on the play, sending the Sterling faithful into a state of delirium.
"I was honestly just thinking base hit," Hale said."I just took a deep breath, and there was my perfect pitch. It was low and outside, and that's my pitch."
For Gaylord (11-6), it was a matter of giving Hale a bit too good of a pitch to hit.
"I tried jamming her," Gaylord said, "and I just didn't get it in enough. I got too worried about hitting her, and it was just right there for her to hit."
Gaylord, a senior who will play softball at Loras College next season, had a monster offensive game. She went 3-for-4 with a pair of two-run home runs and an RBI double.
With her team trailing 7-5 with two outs in the top of the seventh, she hit a two-run shot to straightaway center field to knot the game at 7-7.
"I just concentrated on making contact," Gaylord said. "High pitches are my thing, so when I saw it there, I was going to swing whether it was a strike or not. That was my best shot of getting a hit."
"It was a mistake by me," Staples said. "My catcher set up really outside, and I left it over the plate too much. She's a really strong hitter, and she got me."
For Sterling coach Becki Edmondson, it served as a teaching moment with her freshman pitcher.
"We talked about walking [Gaylord] and not giving her anything too good," Edmondson said, "and we will be working on that in practice this week."
Central (23-10) seized a 4-0 lead in the top of the first inning. Brooke Gaylord delivered the first blow, a two-run homer to right. After a double by Emily Kisch, Kassidy Gaylord, a junior and Brooke's younger sister, hit a two-run shot to left.
"I was really shocked," Staples said. "I was believing. I was like, 'I got this, I got this,' but when they hit two home runs, I was like, 'What?' I just had to settle down."
Sterling battled back in the bottom of the second. A dropped fly ball allowed Hale to score the team's first run, and Darien Bardoner followed with an RBI single to slice the deficit to 4-2.
Trujillo's RBI double in the third inning brought Sterling to within 4-3.
In the fourth, Central manager Wade Maisto pulled Brooke Gaylord out of the circle in favor of Kisch. The move quickly backfired.
Sterling's first five batters against Kisch reached base, with the key hits being an RBI single by Mellott and a two-run base hit by Fritz.
Courtesy runner Alexey Wolfe scored the fourth run of the inning on a wild pitch, giving the Warriors a 7-5 lead at the time.
Brooke Gaylord re-entered the game and needed just one pitch to retire Gabby Sandoval and end the inning, but the damage had been done against Kisch.
"I'm not going to second-guess that, because they were starting to hit Brooke," Maisto said, when asked about bringing in Kisch. "She had gone through the order twice, and I thought it was a perfect time to make the switch, to give a different look."
Staples (28-8) went the distance, allowing seven runs (all earned), 10 hits, two walks and two hit batters. She struck out three.
Erin Stroup reached base four times on three singles and a walk, and scored two runs to pace the Sterling offense.
Brooke Gaylord took the loss. She allowed four runs (two earned), seven hits, five walks and hit one batter. She struck out three.
Star of the game: Brooke Gaylord, Burlington Central, 3-for-4, 2 HR, 2B, 5 RBI
Key performers: Erin Stroup, Sterling, 3-for-4, 2 R; Lauren Fritz, Sterling, 2 RBI; Kassidy Gaylord, Burlington Central, 2-run HR
Up next: Championship game, Sterling vs. Marengo or Belvidere, 11 a.m. Saturday