SYCAMORE – Down to the final strike in the Sycamore softball team's Class 3A Sycamore Regional quarterfinal game against Hampshire and trailing by a run, three words ran on repeat through Sycamore junior Taylor Jones' head as she stood at the plate in the bottom of the seventh.
“All I was thinking in my head was, 'I can do it, I can do it, I can do it,” Jones said. “All I could think of was how good it would feel to make that play and be that person.”
Down 0-2 in the count, Jones was confident even though she didn't have a hit in four previous at-bats, and she had good reason. Jones has built a reputation for picking up big hits, like her walk-off hit to beat Burlington Central last year and the late double to help seal the Spartans' win against DeKalb at NIU when she was a freshman.
So Jones was calm. She took the next three pitches, which were all called balls to the outside, intently watching the pitcher's hip to glean any clue about the pitch's location. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, she saw the pitch coming inside, and she pounced. The ball bounced off of the inside of her bat and fell into right field, just between the second baseman, right fielder and center fielder.
Miranda Rivera, who was pinch-running for McKenna Marcinkowski, and Paige Bjork crossed the plate to win the game, 9-8, and the Spartans charged out of the dugout to mob Jones.
Sycamore advances to play Burlington Central on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in the semifinals
“It wasn't a great hit,” Jones said. “But I was happy because it hit the ground.”
The Spartans felt they should've had the game in hand earlier, but after Brittany Huber's two-run home run in the first inning the Spartans left 10 runners stranded and the game was tied, 4-4, in the top of the fifth.
“We did everything that we could to try to lose that game in the beginning,” coach Jill Carpenter said. “We were pretty tight … We just could not get that big hit. But all it takes is that one little spark.”
Jasmyne Taylor drove in Huber in the fifth before Abby Foulk drove in Taylor, then Bobbie Gable's ground-rule double scored Jones in the sixth. But the Spartans let Hampshire hang around, and the Whip-purs (11-19) took the lead in the seventh by scoring four runs.
But the Spartans' spark came in the seventh inning with two outs and nobody on, when Marcinkowski began the Sycamore rally with a single and Bjork hit a line-drive that bounced over the fence for a ground-rule double.
When Jones stepped up to the plate, Huber had little doubt she'd win the game for the Spartans.
“Honestly, I just knew Taylor could do it,” Huber said.
On Monday, Jones capitalized on the Spartans' last chance of many. Against Burlington Central, she knows that opportunities will be fewer and further between.
“The key to Burlington Central is to play loose,” Carpenter said. “All of the pressure is on them … One hit can win you the game.”