FULTON, Mo. – The Eureka softball team had two chances to win the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament on Sunday, but the squad only needed one.
The Red Devils racked up 14 hits, crushed three home runs and overpowered Spalding 11-3 in six innings to claim their first SLIAC Tournament title and second NCAA Tournament berth in program history.
It was like junior and SLIAC All-Tournament MVP Morgan Ledbetter (Hanna City, Ill./Elmwood) predicted the day before.
"All year long we've been working for it, and I knew our hitting was at its highest level right now," she said. "I think we knew we were going to pull through.
"I'm just so happy to be a part of this experience."
You could see it coming from miles away.
From the rambunctious bus ride race to the ballpark to the last play of the game, the Eureka softball team behaved like this was only going to go down one way. Since claiming the regular-season SLIAC title last week against Spalding, this has been a team on an inexorable march to history.
The Red Devils had to take down the Golden Eagles four times in eight days to get it done. Before the game, some EC players overheard some chatter in the Spalding dugout that it was impossible.
They remembered that.
"I feel like this season is just all about proving people wrong," junior catcher Morgan Osborn (Washington, Ill./Washington) said, "and that's exactly what we came here to do."
While their lack of tournament experience and preseason No. 6 ranking garnered Cinderella comparisons, the glass slipper proved to be ill-fitting for this group.
That kind of fragile footwear's not safe to have around when the Red Devils' sluggers are hitting the ball like this. Someone could get hurt.
In three SLIAC Tourney games, the Red Devils batted a tournament-high .434, racked up 36 runs, jacked six home runs and outscored opponents 27-7.
Pitching and defense had something to do with the dominance, too. By tourney's end, the Red Devils had the highest fielding percentage (.959) and lowest ERA (1.94) in the tournament field as well.
"With our team, you never know who is going to step up day to day – with offense or defense," EC coach Debi Neff said. "Offensively, we can have our top three hitters hitting or our bottom three hitters hitting. It just seems like throughout the lineup you can't really blink at anybody, and that's the type of the team you have to have."
On Sunday, EC ace Erin Smith (Dunlap, Ill./Dunlap) collected her third win in as many days. The junior pitcher only gave up three runs on five hits and no walks in six innings. Aside from a three-run home run by Spalding's Addie Morris on a pitch she left hanging in the fourth, she was in complete control in the circle the whole day.
"This was the fourth time we've played them within a week, and I think they're starting to get used to my pitching a little bit," Smith said. "But luckily I was able to hit my spots and the defense really helped out today. Especially the outfield and Raelyn (Payne) at short."
With the win, Smith improved to 17-3 on the year, taking the top spot in the EC record books for wins in a single season (surpassing Tina Sharp) and moving into fourth in career wins (surpassing Jen Weber).
Normally the stoic one on the team, even Smith let her emotions show during Eureka's frenzied celebration that followed the game-ending run.
"This is phenomenal," she said. "I'm blown away."
"I was a little more excited than usual," she added with a laugh. "This is really big for our program, and everybody's worked so hard."
She was one of four Red Devils named to the SLIAC All-Tournament team, joining Ledbetter, Osborn and Faith Bachtold (Fairbury, Ill./Prairie Central).
Bachtold, the team's freshman left fielder, went 4-for-4 on the day with an RBI and two runs scored, including the game-ender on a sac fly RBI by Alisyn Showalter (Havana, Ill./Havana) in the sixth. She finished the weekend with the highest batting average in the tournament, hitting 6-for-9 (.667) with an RBI and four runs scored.
She said nothing was better than crossing the plate that last time, though.
"As soon as I touched home plate, I just saw everyone running towards me and welcoming me with their arms open, and it felt amazing," Bachtold said. "I'm speechless."
As they did in all three tourney games, Eureka got on the board early, plating a run on an Osborn RBI that scored Raelyn Payne (Lexington, Ill./Lexington).
But things really got humming during an action-packed second inning. After the Red Devils loaded the bases, Bachtold scored on a wild pitch, then Osborn delivered her first of two indelible home runs on the day to make it 4-0.
After waiting for her pitch, the junior captain sent a no-doubter soaring over the left-field fence, beaming in joy and disbelief on her trip around the bases.
""That," Osborn said, "was the first time I actually knew I hit one (a home run) off the bat."
Said Neff: "She was so patient at the plate, so patient. I was so happy for her.
"She pretty much controls what's going on behind the plate, and then, to have her come out and support her battery mate with some offense, you can't ask for a better catcher than that."
The following inning, the Red Devils kept the bats going and tacked on two more runs on three hits and an error.
First, Allison Cagley (Fairbury, Ill./Prairie Central) led off with a double, Adrianna Zeman (Peru, Ill./La-Salle-Peru) reached on an error, and Bachtold drove it in. Then, Klaire Wilmot (Peru, Ill./La Salle) singled, and Showalter delivered her first of two sacrifice RBIs of the day.
Morris popped her three-run shot in the top of the fourth, but Ledbetter's 16th long ball of the season and fourth of the tournament got one back, and a Wilmot RBI single a few batters later put EC back within striking distance of a run rule.
In the fifth, Osborn gave EC a seven-run lead with an inimitable dinger off the left-field pole. The Red Devils threatened to end it there, but they left two on, saving Bachtold's final run for the sixth.
Osborn, Ledbetter, Cagley and Wilmot all had two hits apiece in the win.
After the game, Neff spoke at length to her girls about the historic win. She wanted the team to understand the weight of what they'd accomplished.
It was all about "how much history they made this weekend, and how dedicated and proud not only I was of them, but the EC community back at home. Everybody is just really happy that these kids put an achievement before them, and they got that achievement."
Once she was done speaking, the team soaked her with a celebratory cooler dump. She noticed their smirks before it happened, but she didn't see it coming.
"They just kept getting closer and closer and closer," Neff said. "And then they were there."
The Red Devils came to this tournament with a specific destination in mind. And now, they're there.