EAST PEORIA – The program for the 3A state softball tournament lists Kathryn Gallagher at 5 feet, 9 inches tall.
When she walked to the plate with the bases loaded in the second inning of Saturday’s 3A state third-place game, the St. Ignatius senior slugger, who is committed to the University of Illinois, might as well have been Andre the Giant.
Her shadow stretched toward the circle, where the confidence of Sterling freshman Lexy Staples probably momentarily wavered, considering a day earlier she had suffered through her worst outing as a Golden Warrior.
But it only wavered slightly, and Gallagher might as well have been swinging a toothpick, because she wasn’t going to get a hit. And she didn’t.
Staples struck her out with some high heat, St. Ignatius didn’t score in the second – or in any other inning for that matter – and Sterling claimed the third-place trophy with a 4-0 win at EastSide Centre.
“That was such a huge moment,” Staples said. “I knew she was a great hitter, and considering what happened yesterday... if she gets a hit, probably at least two runs score, and then we would be behind again.”
Gallagher, who had 19 home runs coming into the game, is the Wolfpack’s leadoff hitter, and the Warriors chose to intentionally walk her to start the game.
Considering a day earlier that Manteno’s Carly Trepanier started the semifinal with a home run off Staples, Sterling coach Becki Edmondson did not want to see a repeat performance.
“It was sort of a joke we shared before the game,” Edmondson said. “It seems like Lexy starts every game with a walk, so we were just making it easier on her. But we really didn’t want to start the same way as [Friday].”
After a scoreless top of the first, Sterling (31-9) went to work against St. Ignatius pitcher Maura Lynch (19-9).
Erin Stroup was hit by a pitch to start the inning, and Shannon Long sacrificed her over to second. Senior Karlie Mellott then added to her team record in doubles with her 18th of the season.
This one went to the fence in left-center, and scored Stroup.
“It was nice to get a good hit on the ball,” Mellott said. “I had made some adjustments to my swing, and I just kind of went with it. I think getting a lead helped us relax.”
St. Ignatius (28-14) appeared ready to strike back in the second, after Tess Russell and Hannah Contreras had back-to-back singles to start the inning.
They were moved up 60 feet by a bunt by Cate Lenti. Staples struck out Elyse Wisniewski before walking Keleigh O’Neill. That brought up Gallagher for a key out of the game.
“I knew that Lexy could blow it past her,” Sterling catcher Lauren Fritz said. “Yesterday, Lexy was more nervous than she usually is. Today, I knew she could get it past her. She just had to believe in her stuff and hit her spots, and that’s what she did.”
Staples (31-9) went seven shutout innings, giving up six hits, striking out six, and walking three. Two of the walks were intentional to Gallagher.
That came a day after Staples gave up 10 runs in 2 1/3 innings. She allowed eight hits in the eventual 14-7 loss to Manteno.
“My coaches told me to relax and try to forget about what happened yesterday,” Staples said. “I knew that I was better than that. I just had to get back to throwing strikes and depending on my defense.”
The score remained 1-0 until the fifth inning, when Shannon Long drove in pinch runner Hannah Escamilla with a single.
Fritz then smashed a double to start the sixth inning.
“I had just missed a couple times earlier in the game,” Fritz said. “Coach [Ed] Long told me I needed to get the bat head out there faster. I did on that hit, and I was really happy.
“It took time for us to get going today, because she was throwing slower than what we saw against Manteno.”
Lexy Wolfe came in to run. Abri Hale followed with a single to center.
Gallagher, in center, tried to throw out Wolfe at home, but she overthrew the catcher, which allowed Hale to get all the way to third.
A sacrifice fly by Darien Bardoner rounded out the scoring for Sterling.
Class 3A state third-place
Sterling 4, St. Ignatius 0
Star of the game: Lexy Staples, Sterling, 7 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 6 SO, 3 BB
Key performers: Abri Hale, Sterling, 1 H, 1 RBI, 1 run; Karlie Mellott, Sterling, 2B, RBI
Now playing: Check out video highlights from Saturday’s game at saukvalleysports.com.