BARRINGTON – With the biggest out of her young career already on the infield dirt, one that would send Sterling to the state softball tournament, Sterling pitcher Lexy Staples could only watch, and she wasn't worried.
The trip to state hinged on second baseman Gabby Sandoval making an acrobatic play, as the hard-hit ball caromed off the side of Sandoval's glove to give Wauconda a glimmer of hope.
But it was short-lived as Sandoval turned around and found the ball before making a diving backhanded toss to Erin Stroup at first.
The out sealed a 3-1 win over the Bulldogs in the 3A Barrington Supersectional on Monday afternoon, to advance Sterling to the state tournament for the second time in as many seasons.
"I was so confident in Gabby," Staples said. "She always finishes those plays, so at that point, I knew we were going to state."
Sandoval highlighted a stout Sterling defense, which was effective at keeping the Bulldogs from taking extra bases in key situations, and ending scoring threats.
With Sterling leading 2-0 in the top of the sixth, Wauconda was prime for a big inning. The Bulldogs had the bases loaded with no outs, but only scored one run. Shannon Long charged in on a single to center and got the ball back to the infield quickly to keep the runner at second from tying the score.
"It's those small things that make a big difference and often go unnoticed," Sterling coach Becki Edmondson said. "And it's those things that our team does very well. They're very fundamentally sound, and we have been all year long."
Staples got out of the jam by inducing a ground ball to Karlie Mellott at short, and teamed with Sandoval at second to turn an inning-ending double play to preserve the lead.
The Golden Warriors Nadia Trujillo broke open a scoreless game in the bottom half of the fourth inning when she hit her first home run of the season – and her first in over 3 years – on a 1-1 pitch.
She sent it over the center-field fence scoring Mellott, who reached on an error the batter before, to take a 2-0 lead. The hit breathed life into the Warriors, who had struggled to make solid contact against Wauconda pitcher Kayla Wedl, who was tough when she hit her spots on the inner half of the plate.
"It honestly just came out of nowhere," Trujillo said. "I didn't think it was going to go over, and I'm pretty happy it did."
The key to figuring out Wedl was a team-effort, as the Sterling batters would share bits of information on what the pitcher was throwing. It took a little patience and a simple approach.
"She struck out a lot of people," Trujillo said of Wedl, who finished with six strikeouts and no walks. "All I was thinking at that point was just seeing the ball and making contact."
Wedl was tough the first time through the order as she didn't let a ball out of the infield except for Mellott's single through the left side in the first inning.
Sandoval, the team's No. 9-hitter, was the first to hit Wedl hard when she collected her first extra-base hit of the season, a triple down the left-field line.
"It felt amazing off the bat," Sandoval said. "I just heard the coaches yelling at me to look three."
Sterling added another run in the bottom of the sixth when Abri Hale hit a soft grounder back to Wedl. Wedl charged in and tried to throw out Mellott who ran home from third, but Mellott slid around the tag and got a piece of the back of home plate with her left hand to take a 3-1 lead.
Staples started off three innings by walking the leadoff batter, but was able to work out of jams as the Bulldogs couldn't figure her out. Staples allowed three hits in the win while striking out two.
"As the game went on, I knew I couldn't make a mistake," Staples said. "But I always know my team will pick me up, and they just did it again. It's unbelievable."
Star of the game: Nadia Trujillo, Sterling, 2-for-3, two-run HR, 2 RBI
Key performers: Karlie Mellott, Sterling, 2-for-3, 2 R; Lexy Staples, Sterling, 7 IP, 3 H, 1 ER