WHITEWATER, Wis. – It had to end somewhere.
And for the Eureka softball team, the 2019 season came to an end at the NCAA Division III Tournament on Saturday.
The Red Devils fell short to Coe in a 7-3 Regional elimination game on a cool Wisconsin afternoon at van Steenderen Softball Complex, completing a historic 27-8 campaign. They're only the second Eureka softball team in program history to make it this far.
"Obviously, this was a dream come true," junior Morgan Ledbetter (Hanna City, Ill./Elmwood) said. "We've done a lot of things that nobody expected us to do, and I think we're more ready for next year."
Ledbetter went 2-for-3 and put the Red Devils on the board for the first time in the tournament with a go-ahead three-run home run over the right-field fence in the third inning. It was her 17th long ball of the season, and it gave the Red Devils a 3-2 edge.
However, two innings later, the Kohawks regained the lead with a pair of runs on one hit and four EC errors.
The Red Devils had the top of the order coming up in the bottom of the half, but Coe pitcher Alyssa Olson promptly retired the side.
In the sixth, the maroon and gold stranded two Coe runners without giving up a run, and EC sophomore Allison Cagley (Fairbury, Ill./Prairie Central) singled with one out, but the Kohawks got a pair of quick outs to get out of it.
Coe proceeded to manufacture three insurance runs on two hits to extend the lead to four in the seventh. Then, Olson retired the side one more time to seal it.
Olson (20-3) limited EC to three runs on six hits in seven innings while fanning seven and only walking one. Her counterpart, EC's Erin Smith (Dunlap, Ill./Dunlap) allowed four earned runs on 12 hits in the second NCAA Tournament game of her career. She struck out a pair and only walked one.
"Today, I think we were a little less nervous than yesterday," Smith said. "It's kind of a different pressure, different environment than what we're used to for this season, but it's a really cool experience, and I think with the experiences here, and the experiences this year, we're just going to keep building and hopefully be a little more prepared next year."
Smith finishes the season with a 17-5 record while recording a 2.03 ERA in 141.1 innings. She pitched every inning of the Red Devils final seven games.
After the game, EC coach Debi Neff had nothing but praise for her ace, likening her to a stallion.
"I can't tell her how much I appreciate all the work that she's put in," the Red Devils' seventh-year head coach said. "Everybody works hard, but I think that pitchers not only work hard, but they also have the pressure, and she handles it quite well."
After getting shut out and limited to one hit in Friday's loss to Wisconsin-Whitewater, the Red Devils had more confidence and success at the plate on Saturday.
After going down in order in the first inning, EC loaded the bases with a Ledbetter single up the middle, a walk by Faith Bachtold (Fairbury, Ill./Prairie Central) and a bloop single to right field by Klaire Wilmot (Peru, Ill./La Salle-Peru) before ultimately coming up empty.
Raelyn Payne (Lexington, Ill./Lexington) led off the third with a single through the right side before advancing to second on a wild pitch. A single up the middle by Sydney Shubert (Canton, Ill./Canton) moved her over to third, and her 13th stolen base of the season put two runners in scoring position for Ledbetter's blast.
And the Red Devils held their ground at the plate, fouling off pitches and staying in counts to keep the team's hopes alive.
Defensively, however, the Red Devils kept shooting themselves in the foot, uncharacteristically committing six errors that allowed three unearned runs to score.
The miscues didn't ultimately make up the difference on Saturday, and Neff said she didn't want her girls to dwell on them too much. But at the same time, she doesn't want them to be satisfied, and doesn't expect them to be, either.
"I just want them to remember how they got here, all the work they put in, and the teams they had to beat to actually get there," Neff said. "It's just an incredible ride.
"I think the whole team actually understands what it takes to be a winner. And now that they've been on this stage, they understand that they have to take the next step."
Saturday was graduation day at Eureka, but the softball team didn't have anybody missing out on the commencement festivities back home. This Red Devil squad – which became the third EC program to make it to this stage during the 2018-2019 academic year – doesn't have a single senior on the roster, and plans to have everyone back for the 2020 campaign.
"We've just been on the rise," Smith said. "I think our whole athletic program is on the rise, and I think as long as we keep working and practicing, and wanting to improve, I think it's just going to keep getting better."