FULTON, Mo. – The St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament is winding down, and the Eureka softball team is right where it wants to be.
With a Morgan Ledbetter (Hanna City, Ill./Elmwood) three-run bomb, an Erin Smith (Dunlap, Ill./Dunlap) gem and steady production from the bottom of the order, the Red Devils dispatched Greenville 9-0 in five innings on Saturday afternoon at Blue Jay Field.
Now, EC coach Debi Neff's squad gets two chances to clinch the tourney title and secure an NCAA Division III Tournament berth for only the second time in program history.
"We've got one more to go," Ledbetter said. "The celebration, it's just begun. We're going to celebrate more tomorrow."
The Red Devils can get it done with their fourth win over Spalding in the span of a week on Sunday at 1 p.m. But if they fall short, they'll get another shot at the Golden Eagles in a winner-takes-all game immediately afterwards. This is their first SLIAC Championship Day appearance in program history.
Spalding took down Iowa Wesleyan 6-4 in walk-off fashion, then eliminated Greenville with a 9-6 win to guarantee a rematch with the SLIAC regular-season champs.
But before all that, the maroon and gold got the bats going early, which gave the team a solid lead and a mental edge early. However, it was EC's pitching and defense that set the table for such a lopsided victory.
Smith, the Red Devils' junior ace, turned in one of her smoothest performances of a season that earned her first-team All-SLIAC honors. The right-hander held the Panthers to just two hits in five innings while striking out two and not walking a single batter.
"I felt good today," Smith said. "They got me a couple times, on hard hits to the outfield, but luckily our defense was really strong today, especially outfield. Syd (Sydney Shubert) saved me a couple of times in the outfield, and also Faith (Bachtold)."
In addition to the outfield grabs, shortstop Raelyn Payne (Lexington, Ill./Lexington) made a leaping snag in the hole and third baseman Allison Cagley (Fairbury, Ill./Prairie Central) turned a double play with Ledbetter at first.
Smith's big day came on the heels of a challenging game against Spalding in which she gave up 10 hits but limited the Golden Eagles to two earned runs.
"I was a little frustrated with myself," Smith said of Friday. "I wasn't quite hitting my spots like I usually would, but luckily our defense was there to back me up again, and our hitting finally came through. I was a little bit more relaxed after that."
With the win, she improved to 16-3 on the year, tying EC Hall of Famer – and mother of EC freshman pitcher Sidney Wightman (Waterloo, Ill./Gibault Catholic) – Donita Williams Wightman for the second-most program wins in a single season and tying Jen Weber for fourth in career wins (37).
She wasn't the only Red Devil who made history on Saturday, either.
After Payne led off the first inning with a single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by SLIAC Player of the Year Sydney Shubert (Canton, Ill./Canton), Morgan Osborn (Washington, Ill./Washington) singled to put runners on the corners for Ledbetter.
Ledbetter watched a couple go by that were outside the zone, then she put her bat on a low pitch that didn't stay that way for long, turning into a moon shot before falling back to earth well beyond the center-field fence.
It gave Eureka a three-run lead and marked Ledbetter's 15th home run of the season, breaking assistant coach Kelli Dunne's program record for career home runs. She's now hit at least one dinger in five of her last eight games.
"I figured they'd give me at least one or two chances to prove myself," Ledbetter said. "I was confident they'd throw me something.
"I'm just speechless."
Once Faith Bachtold (Fairbury, Ill./Prairie Central) drew a walk and reached second on a passed ball, Greenville made a several lineup changes, including pulling its starting pitcher and catcher. After that, the Panthers held the Red Devils at bay for the next two innings,
But in the fourth, Bachtold – the No. 7 batter – led off with a single up the middle, opening a four-run rally that included four hits and one error.
"The past couple of games, I haven't been hitting as well as I'd like to," Bachtold said. "I started off with a walk today, and I just felt like it was my job to get us going and get that inning started.
"Everyone has a part to do on our team, and in that moment, that was my job."
Bachtold, who made the game-ending throw-out to home plate in Friday's triumph over Spalding, went 2-for-2 with two runs scored and a walk, leading a productive day for the Red Devils' bottom of the order. She, Klaire Wilmot (La Salle, Ill./La Salle-Peru) and Alisyn Showalter (Havana, Ill./Havana) combined to go 5-for-8, scoring four runs and driving in one.
That same trio went hitless on Friday.
"I know that everyone has off days, but I think the end of our lineup can really come through and do their job," Bachtold added. "I feel that we have a really strong lineup from top to bottom, and that today we just all really pulled through."
Later, Showalter drove in Bachtold, Shubert scored Payne, who reached on a fielder's choice, and Cagley knocked a two-run single to center.
The following inning, Bachtold, Showalter and Payne all singled, setting up back-to-back bases-loaded walks for Shubert and Osborn.
It was 9-0 -- and EC had amassed 11 hits on the day -- by the time the Panthers got themselves out of the jam.
Smith promptly retired the side in the bottom of the fifth to clinch the win by run rule. Then came another celebration and a prolific All-SLIAC awards ceremony. The accolades, fallen records, milestones and fun times just keep going for the Red Devils.
"It just feels so good," Bachtold said, "to be playing on this team."