EAST PEORIA – St. Charles East softball coach Kelly Horan expected Saturday's state championship game to have a much different complexion than East's 3-2 thriller over Barrington in Friday's IHSA Class 4A state semifinal.
Not like this, though.
Minooka slugged the Saints out of EastSide Centre with a record-setting offensive display, ending the championship showdown early with a 14-3, mercy rule triumph in six innings.
"I thought [Friday] was going to be low scoring like it was, and I thought [Saturday] was going to be a slugfest based on what they had done and who they had beat," Horan said.
The Indians, it turned out, did enough slugging for both teams.
Minooka (23-8) established new Class 4A state title game benchmarks for runs, hits (19) and home runs (three). The final homer, a three-run shot by leadoff hitter Rachel May in the bottom of the sixth, ended the game.
Both teams' starting pitchers struggled early, but the similarities stopped there.
Minooka regularly rotates two pitchers, and Indians coach Mark Brown replaced starter Jackie Lilek with Sara Novak to start the third inning after the Saints evened the score at 3 with a three-run, top of the second.
Novak retired all 12 Saints she faced on the evening.
"Every time you get a new pitcher, it's a different swing on it," said East shortstop Lexi Perez, whose RBI single tied the game in the second inning. "I could see the girls were getting a little bit too out in front of it. She was pitching inside instead of outside which we were having before, so we just had to switch and make the adjustment."
There was no relief for struggling Saints junior pitcher Haley Beno. Beno (22-5), who limited powerhouse Barrington to five singles in the state semifinal, couldn't replicate her form against the Indians.
Minooka coach Mark Brown said he was "shocked" the Saints didn't change pitchers. Horan said "we just didn't have Alex (Latoria) warmed up."
"Probably would have gone to her, but hey, Haley brought us here," Horan said. "She was going to finish this."
Beno acknowledged she didn't feel strong in the circle but said it was just normal soreness pitching back-to-back games.
"I knew coming into this game it wasn't going to be an easy game," said Beno, one of several teary Saints during the postgame ceremony. "I tried my best to stay focused and hit my spots."
Beno's teammates were quick to support their beleaguered pitcher.
"Haley's had an excellent season," East junior Sarah Collalti said. "We could not have even made it to state without her. We couldn't have even won any games without her, to be honest. She's been the best pitcher we've had for a long time."
As thunderously as Minooka's lineup performed, the Indians could have done their damage even more efficiently. East left fielder Katie Kolb made an inning-ending, diving catch to save two runs in the fifth inning, and the Indians made a few other outs on hard-hit liners.
"They were just hitting balls at their eyes and at their shoelaces," Horan said. "We couldn't throw it anywhere."
Minooka's state championship run is remarkable considering the Indians trailed Lockport, 13-4, in the fourth inning of a sectional semifinal before storming back for a 15-14 victory.
"I told them, don't let that be the highlight of the playoffs," Brown said. "Let's look back on that as a catalyst, not the highlight of the season. At that moment, they started to believe."
Not only did Novak dominate East from a pitching standpoint, but the Wisconsin recruit also went 4 for 4 with a homer and three RBIs. Teammates Jordyn Larsen and May added three hits apiece and combined for five RBIs.
East (33-6) had only three hits, one of which was a two-run, triple in the second by Collalti that made it 3-2 Minooka before Perez tied the game.
"I had two strikes on me so I was really just trying to make contact," Collalti said. "It was an inside pitch that I just got in front of and was able to drive it just over the right fielder's head, so that was awesome."
Saints senior right fielder Olivia Lorenzini, whose two-out, two-run double against Barrington won the state semifinal in memorable fashion, was among six Saints starters to go hitless against the Indians.
Defensively, the Saints committed three errors while the Indians made none. Minooka's four-run fourth inning made it 8-3, and East's night devolved from there.
Saturday marked the second time in three years that a St. Charles team lost in the state championship game; St. Charles North fell to Moline, 9-8, in 2011. North won this year's Upstate Eight Conference River title and was the only team to beat East by the mercy rule this season before Minooka did so at EastSide Centre.
East's season, though, consisted of many more upbeat moments. The Saints counted a 19-game winning streak among the achievements in the best season in program history.
Horan called the Saints' second-place finish "pretty awesome," a sentiment echoed by Perez, one of only three seniors on the team.
"Every single chance we got, we came out there and said 'This is Saints softball. This is the way we do it,' " Perez said. "We wanted to have fun, be loose and not be tense about anything."