The Marengo Indians varsity softball team (35- 6) continued a winning tradition, on their own terms. They came home as champions, carrying the 2017 IHSA Class 3A trophy, after a 1-0 semi-final win over Nazareth Academy July 9, and the closing contest, a 2-0 victory over East Peoria. The accomplishment adds the second state championship title for the softball program, and third overall, for the school. The program’s amassed hardware also includes three second- place crowns.

“They sacrificed a lot of things, missed a lot of social events, and played a lot of exciting games,” said Marengo Head Softball Coach Dwain Nance. “This is a great team, it’s basically the same core as two years ago, when we lost in the final. We’re going to miss the six graduating seniors a lot, they were a big part of this. The expectations to succeed are always the same.”

After some early season burps, the squad caught fire and tore through their inaugural regular schedule in the Kishwaukee River Conference, garnering an undisputed first place title. The post-season games ticked off consecutively with victories that featured some hair-raising finishes and come-from-behind rallies throughout the regional, sectional, and super-sectional tournaments... the path to East Peoria, and the EastSide Centre, for a shot at the state title.

Standout games included wins over nemesis Sterling, 7-1 in an Apr. 14 regular season contest, and then 2-0 in the sectional on home runs by Hannah Ritter and Lauren Aubry. In the May 27 regional title game, they tied Marian Central 1-1 in the bottom of the seventh inning on a home run by Mariah Dionne. In the ninth inning, with the bases loaded, Hannah Ritter hit a grand slam to win the game 5-1, only her second homer of the season.

Nance’s coaching record went to 340-94-1 at Marengo, and 431-137-1 overall in a fifteen year career. “Team first” was the focus, and individual statistics became a blur. Dionne (20-5) reached the 200-strikeout plateau in the second inning of the semi-final game. “I wasn’t aware of that,” she said. However, former Marengo Head Football Coach Matthew Lynch was well-aware of the team focus.

Invited to participate as the team’s motivational advisor, he said, “This is a good group of athletes, with a strong core and a good outlook on what needed to be done. Being selfless, and being there for each other...you couldn’t hope for more, and it was a joy being with them.”

Nance added, “We have kids that will fill in the openings in the programs; they’ll step up. It’s a matter of cycling through…so, we’re super-excited about the future.”

July 9: Semi-Final Game        MARENGO 1, NAZARETH ACADEMY 0

Nina Reed watched the pitches carefully. And Nazareth’s Devyn Zuro was just as careful, in the bottom of the seventh inning. Reed paid closer attention, drawing a walk. She was replaced by Susie Nawrot, and a fielder’s choice suddenly put a Marengo runner at second base. Grace Houghton struck out, which brought up Ritter, with two outs.

Ritter had come through in the clutch twice before, and people wondered, if it would happen again. It did. Ritter slapped a rocket grounder, past third base, as Nawrot slid over home plate, ahead of the throw. “It felt good, coming through in the clutch,” Nawrot said. “We’d hoped Hannah (Ritter) would put it into play, and she did.”

Ritter was relieved. “I go up there with the mentality that ‘I can hit this ball,’ and thinking that. But to execute it…it’s another thing altogether.”xxxxxxxxxx The game was a scoreless pitcher’s duel up to that point, with Dionne racking up 10 strikeouts, walking one, and allowing two hits. Zuro gave up four hits, walked two, and struck out seven Indian batters. Both pitchers tossed for the entire game.

 July 10: Final Game, State Championship      MARENGO 2, EAST PEORIA 0

The site is East Peoria’s home field, and the uniforms were the same maroon color as Marengo. It was billed as a pitcher’s day with noted strikeout artists, Dionne and the Raider’s Alyssa Graves, on the mound. The first few innings proved an adjustment period for both competitors: Dionne having difficulty locating a strike zone, due to the Raiders’ height, and Graves incurring the same problem, as the Indians were not as tall.

By the fourth inning, it changed. Graves gave up a single to Leah Secor, but struck out Riley Connell and Anna Walsweer. Dionne promptly responded by striking out the side. East Peoria threatened in the bottom of the fifth, as Caitlin Mc Whirter singled and stole second- base. She took third on a bunt single by Peyton Dearing that handcuffed Dani Hartmann.

Marengo broke through in the sixth inning, with a single by Ritter. She moved to second on a sacrifice by Connell. Secor struck out, and then, Dionne walked. Lillie Simons replaced her, as a runner. A throwing error by East Peoria’s shortstop, Ashley Emert, scored Ritter for the first run. Megan Anthony followed with single to right field, scoring Simons. Nawrot hit a grounder to shortstop for the third out.

The tension ratcheted up, when Dionne walked Kaitlyn Smith to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning. She advanced to second base on a Mc Whirter single, after a pop foul out. Both runners then advanced on a grounder to Dionne, for the second out.

Emert and Dionne engaged in the perfect atbat to close a game. The count ran to 0-2, and the battle stretched out with five consecutive foul balls, drawing “oohs and ahhs” from the crowd on each attempt. Emert then swatted a ground ball to Secor, where it was scooped up and thrown to Anthony at first base for the final out.

Shortly after the game ended, the awards ceremony took place on a side field. Nina Reed was smiling. She downplayed that her walk, in the semi-final game, led to the team’s win. “I’m glad we did.”

******* For Marengo fans interested in seeing the semi-final and final games, visit the website (www.nfhsnetwork. com). DVD copies of the contests, professionally- made, with original broadcast play-by-play audio, go to the website (http://www.nfhsnetwork. com/dvds).

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