EAST PEORIA – Marist had not lost to a team in the state of Illinois until the IHSA Class 4A State Finals. That, and a couple of close calls that went against Joliet West on Friday, motivated the Tigers to secure a third-place trophy, the first state trophy in West’s softball program history.
Joliet West (24-14) upset nationally ranked Marist (36-4), 3-2, at the EastSide Centre on Saturday.
“The seniors are one of the best group of kids I’ve had – best team,” said Tigers coach Heather Suca, who played on the Joliet Township state championship team in 2000. “They play together, they work together, not a lot of individual, a lot of team. I give the bench players a lot of credit. If you don’t have a good bench that is motivating and is helping the players out, that’s when your starters are going to struggle a little bit. When you have a bench that’s behind them 100 percent, that makes a huge, huge difference, and I truly believe that was a big part of it.”
Alex Hughes entered the state finals hitting .226, but Suca stuck with the sophomore second baseman in the two spot in the lineup. After missing a squeeze attempt in the third inning, she came through with a two-run single in the fifth to give the Tigers a 3-1 lead.
“After a tough loss yesterday, I wanted to win and get third place,” Hughes said. “I knew that there were two runners on, and to change the score and make the game a little interesting and bring the runs in for my team.”
Said Susa: “She’s an aggressive hitter, she puts the ball in play. She didn’t have a good at-bat the time before it, [and] you wouldn’t know it the next time she steps in, and that’s what I like about her. She doesn’t get down on herself.”
Marist slugger Lexi Voss hit her 14th home run of the season to give the RedHawks a 1-0 lead in the second inning.
“It got me fired up. … That pitch that I threw her, I needed to hit my corner better and hit my spots, and that just woke me up,” Tigers ace Savannah Fierke (19-7) said. “When you go three-up and three-down for so many innings, you just get used to it, and that gave me a chip on my shoulder, especially going into the end of the game.”
Joliet West’s defense needed to be sharp against a Marist lineup that featured six Division I hitters. The RedHawks entered Saturday scoring 9.7 runs per game. Marist was ranked 18th in the nation by Softball America and USA Today, having lost to two Arizona teams in a March tournament.
Fierke scattered two hits the rest of the game due to a great defensive effort, allowing a run in the top of the seventh. She had seven strikeouts to finish the season with 276.
“My defense was amazing today,” Fierke said. “They had my back, and I think they knew, at least I told them, coming into this I’m not going to be able to strike them out. They’re a very good team and have lost to three other teams, and I think they knew you’re going to use your defense, and we played as a team.”
Ambria May, one of four seniors, was the first baserunner Angela Zedak allowed, leading off the third inning with a walk. She advanced to second on an error on Taylor Durak’s sacrifice bunt attempt, third on a fielder’s choice and scored as Lanie Chizmark stole second and the throw down went into center field.
“I was so energized,” May said. “I just wanted to hype everyone up and keep on scoring.”
The Tigers didn’t get into the hit column until Durak singled with one out in the fifth, setting up Hughes’ big hit.
Joliet West’s future is bright, returning six starters next season and with Fierke having two years left before she graduates.
“I can’t wait to come back and kick some butt and win state. That’s our goal. For the returning players, we want more.”