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By Randy Whalen

A team cannot often lose the title game of a tournament by 17 runs and still be happy with the results.

But the Joliet West softball team was. 

The Tigers defeated a pair of state-ranked teams to open the tournament. But then ran out of momentum and lost 18-1 in four innings to Minooka on Thursday, March 28 in the fifth annual WJOL Softball Tournament championship game at the Inwood Softball Fields. 

"No, not at all," senior first baseman Brooke Schwall said of what she and the Tigers expected to happen in the tourney title game. "But we beat Lincoln-Way Central on the first day and then Lockport (in the semifinals). So to get back-to-back wins like that was great."

Plus, a good sign is the last time that the Tigers played for the championship of the WJOL Tournament was a 2-0 loss to Lockport on April 6, 2019. They upset Lincoln-Way Central and Lockport in the sectional that season and ended up taking third in the state in Class 4A. 

Joliet West, Lincoln-Way Central, Lockport, plus numerous other excellent teams will be in the same sectional complex this season, which Lincoln-Way Central will host.

But in late March, the unranked Tigers showed they can compete with the top teams. In the Illinois Softball Coaches Association (ISCA) preseason poll, Lincoln-Way Central was ranked No. 2 and Lockport was No. 3.

So the wins were huge. Especially the opening one, on Wednesday, March 27 in the quarterfinal. There Joliet West edged Lincoln-Way Central 4-3 in eight innings. 

The Knights were 3-2 through March 29. 

The winning run scored when center fielder Shelby Fraser put down a bunt that plated fellow senior Avery Houlihan. The ball was thrown away allowing Houlihan to race in from first.

"It was a first-pitch bunt," Fraser said of the winning play. "Coach (Heather) Suca called a bunt, I put it up the third base line and Avery scored on an overthrow. I was excited about getting the bunt sign. That's how I contribute, doing small ball."

Fraser and her teammates are excited about what this team can do.

"The majority of our lineup returns from last year and we've got a lot of chemistry," Fraser said. "We just want to build of this. For us, it's just continuing to have fun and doing the little things well."

The reason that Houlihan was on first was because the Knights elected to intentionally walk her after she bashed a pair of home runs. The second of which, a 2-run shot in the bottom of the sixth, with senior second baseman Mackenzie Farkas on base, tied the game at 3-3. 

Houlihan, a shortstop, who is committed to Notre Dame, was one of the few Tigers to touch Bella Dimitrijevic. The Knight junior pitcher, a Florida State commit, was unhittable the first three innings and finished with 21 strikeouts.

"My home runs went to left center and center," Houlihan said of her clouts. "I just went up trying to keep it simple and help the team. It turned out better than expected and I was able to tie the game both times.

"I'm glad we could come out on top. Madison (junior pitcher Madison Jadron) pitched well and our defense was great. It helps to have all our starters back except one (Mya Millsaps). We all trust each other and want to do more."

Even playing the top teams, the Tigers wanted to stick with what had made them successful. 

“We stuck with the game plan we’ve been trying to stick with all year,” Suca said. “We focused on base running, put the ball in play, and took advantage of any little mistake which is what we did late. Avery had two huge hits for us which forced them to walk her, which let us get the baserunner and Shelby put the ball in play and we made something happen.”

In the semifinal game, on Thursday, March 28, Schwall made something happen with a line drive 2-run home run to left in the top of the first. That proved to be a catalyst as the Tigers toppled Lockport 4-2.

"It felt good to get up 2-0," said Schwall, who had a school-record 14 homers and 56 RBI last year. "It was a low, inside pitch and I went with it."

Fraser added an RBI single in the second and catcher Caitlyn Baranak, one of six seniors on the team, singled past short to make it 4-0 in the third. Junior third baseman Hope Hughes went 2-for-3 for the Tigers. Jadron gave up nine hits and struck out three in the complete game win as the Porters stranded eight and hit into a double play.

Lockport (5-2), which lost 5-1 to Lincoln-Way West in the third place game directly afterward, scored twice in the bottom of the seventh on a 2-out, 2-run home run to left by senior first baseman Morgan Spodarek. 

In the title game, Houlihan, who was 2-for-2, led off the bottom of the first with a double and scored on an RBI single by senior third baseman Paige Pasteris.

Minooka, however, had scored five runs and knocked out Jadron with two outs in the top of the first. Senior first baseman Madison Kelly (2-for-3) had a 3-run homer to get the Indians on the board. She added a 3-run triple in a 4-run third. Sophomore third baseman Jaelle Hamilton (2-for-3) had a 2-run single in the second and a grand slam to center to highlight a 7-run fourth.

The Indians (4-1-1) had 12 hits and took advantage of seven walks and a pair of hit-by-pitches by three pitchers.

"Madison did a great job in two games and then ran out of gas," Suca said. "But the good thing was that our two freshman pitchers (Laci Cole and Olivia Horn) got some work. We have nine returning players from last year and are expecting good things."

The season opened on Thursday, March 14 with a 14-0 win at Stagg. A pair of high-scoring games followed. First was a 12-9 home loss to Joliet Catholic Academy on Thursday, March 21, and then a 13-8 victory on Monday, March 25 over host Shepard. 

Joliet West (4-3) traveled to Tinley Park on Friday, March 29, and lost 8-5 to a very good Andrew team. The Thunderbolts (8-1-1) were ranked No. 11 in the ISCA preseason poll. 

Last year, Joliet West won the East Division of the Southwest Prairie Conference. So that's one of the goals again this season as the Tigers want to continue to press forward.

"We're not going to lay off the gas pedal," Schwall said. "We're not going to let up from here on out and we plan to get deep in the postseason." 

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