FULTON, Mo. – Trailing 3-1 with opportunities to put runs on the board dwindling, the Eureka softball team pieced together the rally that kept their historic run going.
After Morgan Osborn (Washington, Ill./Washington) led off the fifth inning with a single, junior slugger Morgan Ledbetter (Hanna City, Ill./Elmwood) belted a game-tying, two-run home run that kick-started a five-run surge.
The following inning, Ledbetter delivered a solo shot, and the top-seeded Red Devils went on to knock off fourth-seeded Spalding, 7-4, advancing to the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Softball Tournament winner's bracket for the first time in program history.
"Just knowing our history of being at the tournament and not doing well, and coming out and winning our first game, I think makes a statement," Osborn said. "And we're definitely embracing that target that we have right now."
On Saturday at 11 a.m., the Red Devils (25-6) will take on third-seeded Greenville (21-12) in a matchup that brings together Friday's winners. Prior to EC's triumph, the Panthers held off second-seeded Iowa Wesleyan (26-10), 4-2.
The Red Devils' win was historically significant on multiple levels.
In addition to being EC's first SLIAC tourney win since 2010, it marked EC coach Debi Neff's 150th collegiate win, the fourth 25-win season in program history and the first back-to-back 25-win seasons in program history.
It was also the 100th victory since the start of the 2016 season, making this the winningest four-year stretch in program history.
"I've been fortunate to have a lot of good young ladies come into the program that have really bought in to what we're trying to do here," Neff said. "And I think any successes that I might have is all because of them. To get to the spot we're at is a lot of hard work, and I don't have to motivate them very much because they just continue to keep grinding."
On Friday, the Red Devils started off well, putting the ball in play and an unearned run on the board in the first inning. However, Spalding scored once in the third, fourth and fifth to take a 3-1 lead.
"I knew we were about to break through some time," Ledbetter said of the fifth-inning rally. "I figured it was the time to go. 'Why not now?'
"I only saw a couple pitches that game, but she just kept throwing them right there."
As soon as Ledbetter made contact, the ball's destination was clear. It soared the through the cloudy sky and landed well over the left-field fence. The home run tied her with assistant coach Kelli Dunne for most home runs in program history with 14.
Allison Cagley (Fairbury, Ill./Prairie Central) followed it with a single, Adrianna Zeman (La Salle, Ill./La Salle-Peru) reached on a fielder's choice, and Klaire Wilmot (La Salle, Ill./La Salle-Peru) and Alisyn Showalter (Havana, Ill./Havana) both walked, loading the bases for Raelyn Payne (Lexington, Ill./Lexington).
The freshman worked a full count, fouling off pitch after pitch until she finally got the one she wanted. Earlier, she saw a lot of outside pitches, but Spalding tried to mix it up this time around.
"She kept throwing me inside and I was fouling a bunch of those off, so it seemed like he (Spalding coach Art Williams) couldn't decide which way to go," Payne said. "Then, on the 3-2 count, after a couple foul balls I heard him say, 'Trust your pitch, trust this pitch,' so I had an idea that the changeup was coming, so I just waited back on it."
It worked. Payne lined a long two-run single to left to give EC a two-run lead. Sydney Shubert (Canton, Ill./Canton) followed it with an RBI single to center to make it 6-3.
Spalding's Aly Klein got one back with a sacrifice fly RBI in the following inning, but Ledbetter's second blast of the day – a towering solo bomb to center field – neutralized it.
The day's drama wasn't over yet, though. Spalding loaded the bases with one out in the seventh, bringing Avery Morris to the plate. Morris, who hit a home against EC on Sunday, made solid contact, sending a liner to left field.
Faith Bachtold (Fairbury, Ill./Prairie Central) was there to make the play, though. Then, the freshman made another one, firing down to Osborn for a play at the plate.
Her throw was right on the money, and Osborn applied the game-ending tag, raising the ball above her head in triumph after the call.
"I have total faith in my left fielder, all the time," Osborn said. "I knew Faith had it in the bag."
Payne, Shubert and Ledbetter all collected three hits apiece, with Ledbetter tallying two homers and Payne tacking on a double. Pitcher Erin Smith (Dunlap, Ill./Dunlap) collected the complete-game win, improving to 15-3 on the season.
The Red Devils have now won seven straight games.
"We have a pretty special team this year," Payne said. "We don't have any seniors, but we don't want to take this year for granted at all. I definitely think we're laying it all out this year."