ROYAL CENTER — A storybook season came to a heartbreaking finish on Wednesday night as Morgan Township fell to Pioneer in a Class A regional title game.
The Cherokees erased an early 1-0 deficit to tie the game, but then gave up the eventual game-winning run in the bottom of the sixth inning to fall 2-1 to the Panthers.
Morgan Twp. finished 21-5 this season with a pair of one-run losses to Pioneer, a pair of losses to Class A sectional champion South Central and a shorthanded season-opening loss to Kankakee Valley.
“I’m so proud of the heart of this group,” Morgan Twp. coach Bob Madden said. “I couldn’t have asked anything more from these kids. This is the best group that I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach.”
Pioneer (29-2) looked impressive early as it loaded the bases in the first inning before Morgan Twp. hurler Esa Hill induced an inning-ending double play to get out of the jam without any damage.
The Panthers came right back in the second inning and made the first dent on the scoreboard as Madison Blickenstaff drew a leadoff walk and later scored on a RBI single from Anna Parsley.
The Cherokees weren’t down long as freshman Mallory Handley started a two-out rally with a single in the top of the third. Senior Ashley Bolen followed with a single and then Northern Iowa recruit Emmy Wells blasted a double to the fence, scoring Handley. Bolen was thrown out trying to go from first to home on the play, ending the inning with the score tied 1-1.
Both pitchers settled in at that point and the early offensive sparks were replaced by a host of strikeouts and groundouts.
“Honestly, I expected it to be more of an offensive battle, but then it turned into a pitchers’ duel,” Madden said.
Hill didn’t allow a baserunner beyond first base for three straight innings, retiring seven straight batters at one point. Pioneer pitcher Hailey Cripe was equally as impressive, retiring the final 11 Morgan Twp. batters of the game.
“(Cripe) is a really good pitcher,” Bolen said. “We don’t see that kind of speed and movement a lot during the season.”
Cripe helped her own cause in the bottom of the sixth when she led off with a single and then scored when freshman Mackenzie Robinson laced a two-out single to left field. Cripe beat the throw home and then Robinson was thrown out trying to advance to second for the third out.
The Cherokees were retired in order in the seventh inning, bringing an end to their bid for a fourth regional title in school history and second in the last three years.
The loss brings an end to the careers of seniors Hill, Bolen and Erin Hudkins, who missed the postseason with an illness. The three seniors went a combined 86-20 in their careers and all three were four-year starters.
“I’m obviously sad about the game and that we lost, but I’ve been playing since tee ball and it’s sad that it’s over,” Bolen said. “Erin and I have been together for so long; we play on the same travel team. I wanted to play for her out there today.
The Cherokees return a bulk of their starting lineup, including Wells and Handley.
“We’re going to have a younger team and I know the junior class is going to work hard and come back hungry,” Wells said.