EAST PEORIA – A year ago, Sterling players left heartbroken after a semifinal loss.
A senior-dominated bunch, the chance for a state title in their lifetimes as players was over.
The next day greeted them with another close game, another close loss.
While “happy to be there” was the sentiment throughout the camp – and probably felt somewhat – there was a bit of frustration at not winning.
Because they were a bunch of winners, and losing never sits well with winners.
On Friday, an underclass-dominated bunch were shell-shocked after two innings against Manteno. The Warriors trailed 9-0 after two, and with a very good pitcher in the circle across the way, a rally was a long shot.
But, you want to know what? The Warriors didn’t give up.
They switched pitchers – a gamble bringing a varsity newbie in Cheyenne Harrington – and gradually, they made it respectable.
It was still a loss – 14-7 – but there wasn’t any denying the effort given.
So it came as no surprise that the team that arrived Saturday morning for the third-place game was ready to scratch, claw and fight their way to a win.
And they did. 4-0 over St. Ignatius. 1-for-4. Not too bad.
It’s an easy thing to type in a text file – Sterling wins third place.
It’s been a whole different thing for it to happen.
Go way back to when the program was happy to play the role of occasional spoiler in the regional.
It took a lot of things to go right. A lot of hard work starting at young ages.
Some took the travel-ball route like Karlie Mellott. Some gained fame in the Little League World Series. Others did a little of both, or took other routes, but the end result is the same.
Behold: the Warriors won third place.
“I think it says what softball has become in Sterling,” Mellott said. “It’s developed into a program where good players replace good players.
“Everyone thought because we lost so many seniors last year, and that we would be young, that we wouldn’t be able to do this. It’s the program.”
For it to happen this year, and this time at EastSide Centre, it took one key ingredient – guts.
Example A: Lexy Staples.
Friday was the worst day in the circle for the Sterling freshman. It was the sort of day that crumbles careers.
Saturday, she was back in the circle, throwing a shutout to get a different trophy for the case at Musgrove Fieldhouse.
That sort of resilience isn’t really taught, but it is learned. Staples probably can teach a graduate course in it.
So, the Warriors won third place.
For Mellott and fellow senior Darien Bardoner, that means they are leaving the program in better shape than ever before. That’s a good feeling.
For those who remain, third is a good word.
But they did lose that first game, and that won’t sit well with them.
Because they are winners, and winners are never content with a loss.
For the rest of us, we’re left waiting for the next step forward.
“I am really excited to see what this program does in the next couple years,” Mellott said. “I couldn’t be happier with the 4 years I spent here, and what we accomplished.
“But you can tell that great things are coming.”