EUREKA – As the regular season came to a close, there were three possible outcomes for the Eureka softball team.
A postseason berth, program history or familiar heartbreak.
There was no heartbreak for the maroon and gold at Sweitzer Field on Sunday, only long-awaited triumph.
With a 2-1 victory over Spalding, the Red Devils clinched a spot in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament. Then, with a 7-3 win in Game 2, they seized the SLIAC conference crown for the first time in Eureka's 13-year membership.
"We've been working for this," junior pitcher Erin Smith said. "My first few years, we didn't quite get there. We were so close, and finally, we were able to clinch it this year. It's just amazing.
"I'm just bewildered right now."
For the first time this year, Smith (Dunlap, Ill./Dunlap) was in the circle for EC for both games on Sunday, and she responded to the challenge by turning in a gem and an encore sharp enough to get the job done.
In Game 1, she limited Spalding to just one run on four hits and one walk while striking out a pair in seven innings. She faced 25 batters, threw 81 pitches and recorded 56 strikes.
Then, she turned around and threw seven more innings, holding Spalding to one earned run on 10 hits and zero walks in seven innings. This time around, she tallied 62 strikes out of 98 pitches, fanning four batters along the way.
Smith was the one who fannned Avery Morris for the final out that triggered the first celebration of the day after Game 1.
It was Raelyn Payne (Lexington, Ill./Lexington) who made the final play of the day, though.
With one on and one out in the bottom of the seventh, the freshman shortstop snagged a flare by Grace Sweat and fired to first for the double play.
"I could see from the corner of my eye the girl leading off first base," Payne said, "so my first thought was 'catch the fly ball and get it back to her,' and I knew instantly that I had her. And I saw (third baseman) Allison (Cagley) waiting with her arms wide open."
Within seconds, the rest of the team was there to joyously mob them both.
Going into the day, the Red Devils knew they could have walked off the field with nothing, but instead, they took it all.
"Before the game," EC coach Debi Neff said, "I could tell by looking in their eyes that they were all-in. Our dugout was extremely vested in our goal today. I am so proud of this team's accomplishment."
"It's stressful," Smith said of the circumstances. "We knew we had to lay everything out there, and we did.
Game 1 was a nail-biter all the way through, and the Red Devils did just enough to hold on. They scored the first run of the game in the first inning on an RBI single by Adrianna Zeman (La Salle, Ill./La Salle Peru) and took a 2-0 lead in the second after an RBI single by Sydney Shubert (Canton, Ill./Canton).
Shubert, who leads the nation in batting with an unfathomable .607 batting average, is primarily known around the conference for her ability to place a bunt and race down the line, but this time, she slapped one into a perfect hole in left-center to give the Red Devils a two-run advantage.
She finished the game 3-for-3 and went 6-for-7 with three RBIs on the day.
"I was pretty nervous, just because I knew it was a big game," Shubert said, "but I knew I just had to keep doing what I was doing to get on base."
Spalding scored its lone run of the game off a leadoff solo home run by Avery Morris in the third inning. The Golden Eagles got two more on that inning, but left both stranded. They got another on in the six, but stranded her on second, leaving just three outs for them to change the score.
Smith retired the side instead, getting a groundout, fly-out and that cathartic strikeout to end it.
EC tallied seven hits, with Payne going 2-for-4 and Cagely and Zeman each contributing a crucial hit to go with Shubert's trio of base knocks. The Red Devils left 10 runners on base, but they compensated their inability to capitalize at the plate by playing clean defense, not committing a single error behind Smith.
Game 2 was a different story from the get-go. Spalding put two runs on the board in the first inning off four hits and an EC error. The Red Devils left two stranded in the first and went down in order in the second.
In the third, though, the bats came alive, hitting around the order and driving in four runs to take a 4-2 lead. First, Alisyn Showalter (Havana, Ill./Havana) singled, Payne doubled and Shubert drove in a run. Then, after a Morgan Osborn (Washington, Ill./Washington) walk, Morgan Ledbetter (Hanna City, Ill./Elmwood) delivered a two-run single and Cagley followed with an RBI single up the middle.
Ledbetter, who entered with 12 home runs and didn't see a lot of good pitches to hit in Game 1, went 3-for-4 with 2 RBIs in Game 2. Payne went 3-for-4 with a double and an RBI in Game 2, while Cagley (Fairbury, Ill./Prairie Central) went 2-for-4 with an RBI. The Red Devils tallied 15 hits in total.
Osborn scored a fifth run on a wild pitch in the fourth inning, and Payne and Shubert both drove in runs in the fifth to make it 7-2. When Osborn came to the plate with two on and two out in the inning, the Red Devils were improbably a home run shy of achieving a run-rule.
Osborn flew out, and the Red Devils left two on in the sixth, putting three outs between their squad and the title.
Spalding did its best to mount a comeback, scoring a run on back-to-back hits to start the inning, but it would have taken quite the rally, and it wasn't to be.
On Thursday evening, the top-seeded Red Devils will take on fourth-seeded Spalding again in the first game of the SLIAC Tournament in Fulton, Missouri.
With Sunday's sweep, the Red Devils improved to 24-6 on the season and 14-4 in SLIAC play. The conference champs were picked to finish sixth in the SLIAC preseason poll, but they have defied expectations at nearly every turn.
"It's a lot of work," Smith said. "It's a lot of long hours, but it's definitely worth it in the end. This team has come together. It's just amazing."