EAST MOLINE – The United Township Panthers came into the opening Saturday of Western Big 6 Conference softball thinking title defense. By the end of the afternoon, it was the Rock Island Rocks with high hopes of title contention.|
For the first time since 2008, the Rocks swept a softball doubleheader from the Panthers, winning 4-2 and 8-1 at UT's diamond.
In fact, Rocky catcher Jasmine Ragusi was enthusiastic about facing the WB6 defending champ, and winners of three of the last four conference titles, to start off league play.
"Why not push us to do our best?" Ragusi said after going 2-for-3 and driving in two runs in the second game. "Everyone had doubted us coming in."
De'Aysha Walker, who also had a big second game with a double, a triple and three RBIs, recognizes the importance of getting off to a 2-0 WB6 though the Rocks are 8-6 overall.
"These two wins mean a lot," Walker said. "This is great for us. It gives us more confidence."
UT, which falls to 3-5, changes it focus from competing for another conference title to finding a way to get better.
"We're not worried about that," UT coach John Alonzo said of what needs to happen for the Panthers to have a title shot in the final four weeks of WB6 play. "We're worried about getting better. When the day started, we talked about that. But now, we worry about figuring it out."
UT got stellar pitching from junior Heather Johnson (2-3) in the opener, giving up just three hits. However, the Panthers committed four errors which led to all of RI's four runs being unearned.
"That's the best she's pitched all year," Alonzo said of Johnson, "maybe the best in a couple of years. But we didn't play defense behind her and didn't hit the ball for her."
Conversely, the Rocks played good defense behind freshman Alex Sierens (5-2), and offered just enough base runners to make UT pay for its mistakes. The lone RBI for Rocky game from No. 9 hitter Brooke Hart, in the sixth, to make it 2-0.
Sierens credited her performance to learning from her loss to Geneseo earlier in the week, as well as the leadership from her catcher, Ragusi.
"I worked harder at my next pitching lesson," Sierens said of the fallout of that 16-5 loss to the Leafs. "I worked on keeping the ball low. ... Jasmine gives our pitchers more confidence. She helps us get out of sticky situations."
UT had runners in scoring position in four of the seven innings. Sierens fanned five and walked two, with Morgan McCready getting a save by getting out of a seventh-inning jam.
The Rocks continued that confidence in the second game. They scored two in each of the first two innings to match their first-game run total. They doubled it over the course of the final five frames thanks to the bats of Walker, Ragusi and Ashlyn Mumma, who was 3-for-4 with two RBIs. That allowed them to make up for four errors of their own in game two.
"You've got to win it out there in this conference," RI coach Steve Ebner said in reference to defensive play.
They survived to come away 2-0 in the WB6. And doing so against the defending champs and a team against which sweeps have come few and far between leaves the Rocks confidently fielding thoughts of title hopes.
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