Before this high school softball season started, United Township coach John Alonzo recruited scouts to take a look at a young and largely untested group.|
"They'd all go, 'I don't know her, I don't know her and I don't know her,'" Alonzo said. "They'd all say, 'I know the pitcher and the second baseman, but I don't know anybody else.' So we told the kids, 'Hey, show them who you are this season.'"
That challenge was fully realized Tuesday, with the Panthers surprising the doubters by claiming no worse than a share of the Western Big 6 Conference crown by sweeping visiting Galesburg, 3-1 and 11-0 in five innings, in a makeup doubleheader league finale for both teams.
By claiming at least a piece of its third league title in four seasons, UT (12-4, 9-1) put the pressure on defending champ Moline, which hosts Rock Island in a twinbill today, needing a sweep to share the throne.
"It means a lot to us, because no one believed we could do it," said Brooke Prior, the pitcher those preseason critics recognized. "There were other teams picked to finish ahead of us, so this is a cool feeling."
Even cooler? Gazing at UT's junior-dominated lineup and wondering about the future with sophomores Hailey Lenth and Heather Johnson factoring so heavily in the title clincher.
Lenth went 4-for-6 in the doubleheader, with two doubles, four RBIs and a pair of two-out, run-scoring hits to key the offense in the nightcap.Johnson (3-3) continued to emerge from some 10th-grade struggles by spinning a two-hit shutout featuring five strikeouts and no walks.
"(Lenth) has had a great year, but the last few games she's been struggling a bit, so this was a good sign," Alonzo said."Same with Heather. This was another step in the right direction for her, which is great, because we'll need her as we move forward."
Prior, one of UT's three senior starters, and Courtney Markin, the returning second-baseman the critics recognized, also continued to be catalysts.Prior also went 4-for-6 in the double dip, with three runs and an RBI triple to spark a three-run third inning in the opener.
Between run-scoring triples by Prior and Markin, UT senior Natalie Brown also executed a suicide squeeze bunt to force across another run and give Prior the pitcher plenty of support.
Prior (9-1) went the distance in the opener, scattering three hits while balancing 10 strikeouts against a walk.
"We had to work that first game," Alonzo said. "I told (Galesburg) Coach (Brad) Swanson they've made a lot of strides. They've played everybody tough this year. We knew we couldn't come in thinking we were going to walk all over them."
In the nightcap, though, five errors by Galesburg (8-16, 1-9) led to eight unearned UT runs.Also in the mercykilling, Markin, Brown and Brooke Collins recorded their second hit of the twinbill.
"I've been here six years, and we've never beaten a Quad-Cities school," Swanson said. "I talked to (Galesburg athletic director Ralph) Henning, and it's been at least since 2003, but we're getting closer."
The victories helped UT celebrate its annual "Paws for the Cause'' breast cancer awareness day, with each inning dedicated to a member of the UT softball family touched by the disease. The field was decorated with pink balloons, and both teams wore special uniforms splashed with the color for breast cancer awareness.
"It's a big day to become conference champions," Lenth said. "It's a special day and a special finish for us."