Touted as a state-caliber team, the Columbia Eagles softball team ended their season Monday in a fight that just simply didn’t fall their way.
“I think we were definitely the better team,” Columbia coach Rhonda Major said of her team’s 4-3, extra-inning loss to Alton Marquette (29-6) in the Class 3A Salem Sectional Championships Monday night. Columbia landed themselves a spot in the sectional title game after shutting out Carbondale last Wednesday in the semifinals, 8-0. Columbia and the Explorers did not meet until Monday due to a rain out of the originally scheduled Saturday contest.
Last year, the Eagles’ state playoff hopes were cut short in the regional finals by Marquette, as well.
But Major says it was different this time. Her team didn’t make any errors, unlike last year’s post-season loss.
“We had a great season,” Major said of her team’s 30-6 year. “(Pitcher Brianna Weilbacher) had a great game, with 15 strikeouts and she was hitting her spots.”
The junior ace pitched all nine innings in a pitcher’s duel against the Explorers’ own star Alexis Silkwood, who averages 15 strikeouts per game.
“We had great at-bats from the get-go, like we have all year,” Major explained. “We hit the ball like crazy.”
Columbia held Silkwood to just five K’s and led on the boards after the third inning with an RBI by Eagle senior Alexis Royer and a triple by sophomore catcher Taryn Pena that scored two more CHS runners.
“(Silkwood) was definitely frazzled, and everyone knew it,” Major said, proud of her team’s ability to battle against the Explorers’ leader on the mound.
But Marquette came back in the top of the fifth inning, tying the game up 3-3 and making it a sectional championship nail bitter.
The two teams battled it out in extra innings until the ninth, when Marquette squeaked a runner on first on a two-out base hit. CHS intentionally walked the following Explorer batter. But just one hit, a single by Marquette’s Maddie Youngblood, would be the difference of the title contest, resulting in a game-winning walk-off RBI.
“She hit the ball so hard right at us,” Major said, explaining the final play.
“We fought until the end and had some chances we couldn’t pull through,” the coach said of her team’s chances in the fourth, eighth and ninth innings where they left runners on base.
The Eagles end their season, leaving behind a successful senior class.
“These seniors had a huge part in our success over the last four years,” Major said of the group who had more than 100 career wins and was the first group she has had with her through four years in her coaching career at CHS.
Royer was a pivotal part of the Eagles’ offense, leading the seniors and bringing along Pena.
“She had a great season for us, a great four years, actually,” Major said of Royer. “She is an all-around great player… and will have success up at Parkland (College).”
Both Royer and Pena currently lead in nine and 10 of the 13 hitting statistic categories in the metro area, respectively, as the top few in several categories, including: doubles leaders — Royer, 22 (1st), Pena, 19 (2nd); RBI leaders — Pena, 55 (1st), Royer, 46 (3rd); runs scored — Royer, 53 (2nd); slugging percentage — Pena, .1070 (1st); on-base percentage — Pena, .622 (3rd).
Losing six seniors but hoping to return seven players from this year’s 30-6 squad, Major says she already has high hopes for next season.