LAKE GENEVA, Wis. - Anyone expecting the Beloit Memorial softball team to self-destruct after a rough couple of innings clearly hadn't been paying close attention to the team in the regular season.
The relentless Purple Knights might have trailed Wilmot Union 3-0 as the game crept towards the latter stages at Badger High School Thursday. But these Knights had come much to far (the WIAA Division 1 sectional finals, to be precise) to simply lay down and accept their fate.
Senior Jaelyn Ryan provided a bolt of energy with a two-run home run in the fifth inning, and it was game on.
This fairy tale of a season didn't come with a happy ending, as the Knights ended up dropping a 5-3 decision to Wilmot in eight innings. But the Knights competed like champions, even if their medals said second place.
The game began ominously for the Knights, who committed two errors on routine plays in the first inning that led to a Panther run.
"This is a big game, big for everybody," Beloit Memorial coach Jennifer Pozzani said. "We had some nerves at the start, but they never gave up. They never quit. They never rolled over. You can't ask for any more than that."
The Panthers pushed across another run on a two-out passed ball in the third to make it 2-0. After the Knights squandered a second-and-third, no-out situation in the bottom of the third, things began to look really grim when Walker walked two hitters with two outs, then allowed an RBI single to push the deficit to 3-0.
But that's when Ryan jolted the Knights right back in the game.
"I wasn't up there trying to take it out," Ryan said. "I was just trying to hit it hard somewhere. I'm a senior, and I didn't want to go down without a fight."
Center fielder Natalie Bittner kept the Knights within striking distance by gunning out a runner at home to end the sixth inning.
Beloit entered the bottom of the seventh needing a run to keep their season alive, and two to end Wilmot's.
It was Bittner who led the charge, smoking a double to right-center with one out, then stealing third. That set the stage for Madison Stavn, who crushed a ball to center field, where Wilmot's Anna Wischnowski made a circus catch just in front of the fence. Bittner scored easily to tie the game, sending the contest to extra innings.
In the eighth, the Panthers dropped two softly hit singles down the left field line and eventually put runners on second and third with one out.
Wischnowski again was in the spotlight. She hit a hard grounder to second. When the throw home got away from Ryan, both runners were able to score, sending the Wilmot dugout into a frenzy.
"That was absolutely the right play, to come home and try to cut the lead runner," Pozzani said. "We practice that play exactly. It was either going to be a huge play for us or a huge play for them. Unfortunately, that one didn't go our way."
Walker stayed poised the entire game, allowing just five hits and three earned runs while striking out six and keeping her team in the game.
"Jacey pitched great today," Pozzani said. "She knows that every single play starts with her, and she has to come into the game ready for that, and she was."
The Knights couldn't do anything with Southern Lakes Conference Player of the Year Madison Zerr in the bottom of the inning, and the Panthers were headed to Madison, while the Knights were left to ponder just how close they came at a run to state.
The Knights graduate key seniors like Angelique Spencer, Ryan, Ariana Brown and Gracie Henthorn, but return the majority of their core, including Walker.
"We're going to miss our seniors a ton," Walker said. "But we had a phenomenal year this year, and we have to keep building on it. Next year, we're coming back just as strong and this experience is going to help us in the future."
WILMOT 5, BELOIT MEMORIAL 3
Wilmot................ 101 100 02- 5 5 1
Beloit Memorial.. 000 020 10 - 3 6 4
Pitchers - (ip-h-er-bb-so) - Walker (L; 8-5-1-4-6), Wischnowski (1-0-0-0-0), Zerr (W;7-6-3-2-4).
Leading Hitters - BM: Ryan (2x3). 2B - Bittner, Swanson. HR - Ryan.