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Softball 4A State Championship: Marist falls short in bid for repeat

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By Randy Whalen
Correspondent
If someone would have told Emily Bojan that she would come up in the bottom of the seventh with an opportunity to tie or win the state championship game in her final high school at-bat, she’d love to be in that situation every time.
But unfortunately, the Marist senior catcher hit the ball in the air to the outfield, where nothing was getting through against St. Charles North. Her fly-out to center ended the game and the RedHawks fell just short in its bid to repeat as state champions, falling 3-2 in the Class 4A State Championship game, held June 11 at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex in Peoria.
Marist (31-6-1) brought home its sixth state softball trophy since 2012, but its first for second place. The RedHawks won Class 4A titles in 2012, 2015 and 2021, and took fourth in 2017 and 2019.
It was the first state title for the North Stars (27-4), who tracked down nearly every ball hit to the outfield.
“Kudos to their outfield,” Bojan said. “I was very surprised at some of their catches, but it was awesome for them.”
And it was awesome for Bojan to be in the situation to do something special in the bottom of the seventh. With two outs and none on, senior leadoff hitter Sierra Sass put down a perfect bunt to the left side of the plate and beat it out for a single. Sass finished 2-for-3 with a walk and it was her second straight bunt single.
“I just knew in that moment that I needed to get on base, it was my only job,” Sass said. “We lost, but it’s been a great two years. Marist softball is great and it’s special to be part of this program.”
It has been for Bojan, who wanted nothing more than to at least duplicate her previous at-bat when she singled to center. Instead, she hit a hard fly ball that went almost directly to junior center fielder Leigh VandeHei.
VandeHei had made a spectacular catch to rob senior Gia Richy of extra bases in the bottom of the second.
VandeHei barely had to move for Bojan’s ball, and when she squeezed it the North Stars — who lost the 2011 Class 4A state title game 9-8 to Moline in their only other downstate appearance — were state champions.
“Yeah, I loved it,” said Bojan of having that opportunity. “I wanted to do it for my team. Once it came off my bat I thought it might carry over her head. But I loved being in that situation.”
The game was scoreless through four innings. But the North Stars had more opportunities, standing six in that span. But they broke through in the fifth, loading the bases on three straight singles to open the inning. Sophia Olman followed with a sacrifice fly and fellow junior Megan Bauwens singled to right to make it 2-0.
Freshman Bree Hanik led off the bottom of the fifth with the RedHawks’ first hit, a double off the third-base bag. But she didn’t move from there.
With the top of the order up in the sixth, Marist tied the game. Sass led off with a bunt single to chase junior starter Ava Goettel. Then Bojan banged a base hit to center to greet freshman pitcher Paige Murray.
Isabel Cunnea, the RedHawks’ junior left fielder, laced a 1-1 pith to the gap in right-center and the game was tied at 2-2.
“It was awesome,” Cunnea said of getting the hit. “Sierra and Emily did their job to get on base and I knew I had to drive the ball deep to knock them in.
“(At the end) It was sad. We fell just short but had a great run. Their outfield won the game for them and made awesome plays.”
Those plays included two catches to end the inning. With one out,  Richy blooped an infield single and Cunnea moved to third. Richy, one of seven seniors on the team, then stole second. Hanik hit a ball so hard to VandeHei in center that Cunnea couldn’t score.
Next up was sophomore Caroline O’Brien, who obliterated a ball to deep left that looked like it might carry to the fence and drive in two runs. But Meghan Nicastro, one of four St. Charles seniors, raced back to reach up and track it down and the game remained tied.
St. Charles scored the winning run off Brooke McNichols in the seventh. With two outs, sophomore Maddie Hernandez ripped a 1-2 pitch to center to score junior Julia Larson, who had led off with a single up the middle. Larson and Ashlee Chantos each had two hits for the North Stars.
“We had a group of girls that were on the team for both years,” Phelan said of Marist’s returnees from last season’s state title team. “It’s really special and it takes good culture to get this far. I believe we have a good culture here.”
Bojan will go on to play at Wisconsin.
“This season made me love the game even more,” Bojan said. “Just huge thanks to the coaches here for making me the player that I am.”
Last Win
McNichols came up big in a 6-5 semifinal win over Barrington on June 10, but the conditions were not those in which she enjoys pitching.
“I hate to pitch in the rain,” the senior right-handed pitcher said. “I’d rather pitch in 90 or 100-degree heat than the rain or cold.”
With two outs in the top of the seventh, the rain had finally quit; but it was still cold and wet as McNichols found herself in a jam. Barrington had the bases loaded and a run in after there were two outs and none on.
But, after having two walks and a wild pitch in the inning, and seven walks total in the game, McNichols got ahead when it counted. She coaxed a fly-out to Hanik in right on an 0-2 pitch to end the game as the RedHawks held on for the win.
“It was chaotic and nerve-racking, but I knew my team had my back,” McNichols said of the seventh inning. “I just wanted to do it for my teammates and end it there.”
McNichols (23-5 final record), who allowed five hits and struck out seven Fillie batters, did that.
On the flip side, Marist had seven hits. Bojan had two of them and drove in the go-ahead run on a fielder’s choice ground out following a rain delay in the bottom of the fourth inning.
Cunnea drove in three runs, including a solo homer to left in the third and the RedHawk’s final one on a fielder’s choice in a 2-run fourth.
“Our bats provided us with six runs,” Cunnea said. “It was awesome.”

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