LAKE STATION | As Wheeler's Karessa Sweeney pulled up to second base, she jumped in the air with the feeling of postseason softball euphoria overtaking her.
Facing a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the seventh inning with extra innings possibly looming, Sweeney belted an RBI-single into left field, plating Haley Lovison to give the Bearcats a 2-1 win over Whiting in the championship game of the Class 2A Lake Station Sectional.
After dropping a fly ball that allowed Whiting's Abby Bondi to score in the second inning, Sweeney felt the overwhelming need to redeem herself with the season on the line.
"I didn't want to let my team down," she said. "I knew I had to do something to make sure we won."
Wheeler coach Marc Bruner ran onto the field to congratulate Sweeney after her game-winner, which gave the Bearcats their fourth sectional title overall and first since 2010.
"I love that kid," Bruner said. "She's a phenomenal young lady. She just lives and dies for softball. She's really turned it on here (in the sectional)."
Sweeney hit .400 last season, but entered postseason play this year around just .240. That came after a slump that saw her hitting below .100 earlier this season. To turn things around, Sweeney knew she had to tinker her approach at the plate.
"I (square) like I'm bunting, but then I pull back," she said. "It makes me see the ball better. I can see change ups way better."
While Sweeney emerged as the late hero in Wheeler's win, the always-consistent Nickole Finch was nearly unhittable once again, recording 17 strikeouts and giving up just three hits. Finch's curveball worked well against the Oilers (21-5).
"I guess I was just feeling it today," Finch said. "I didn't have my best warm-up, but I got some good motivation from (my coaches). My catcher, Angelise (Vukin) called a phenomenal game. I was on my game. I knew what I was going to pitch."
Finch outdueled Whiting pitcher Mollie Lovasko, but the Oilers senior still provided 10 strikeouts in a solid outing and earned the praise of coach Paul Laub.
"We had chances, but we didn't take advantage of them," Laub said. "That's a good team with a very good pitcher. Our kids hung in there. Hats off to Mollie Lovasko again. She pitched a great game again. She held her cool. It's tough to keep a good team down for a long time."
The Bearcats will travel to face Winamac at 7 p.m. Tuesday in a one-game Class 2A regional.