ST. CHARLES – The on-the-rise St. Charles East softball program was one win from a state championship last year, but it took a longer wait for the Saints to earn bragging rights in their own backyard.
A sizzling pitching performance from senior Haley Beno allowed the Saints to shut down St. Charles North, 1-0, Tuesday as East put a stop to North’s five-year reign as conference champions.
North has dominated the crosstown series in recent times so sealing a conference title by knocking off North carried extra cachet for the Saints.
“There’s going to be a party on the bus ride home, for sure,” East senior left fielder Sarah Collalti said.
North won the teams’ earlier meeting this season at East but Beno solved the North Stars this time, firing a two-hitter with 10 strikeouts, underscored by striking out the side against the bottom of North’s order to close the game.
North’s two most dangerous hitters – Sabrina Rabin at the top of the lineup and cleanup hitter Abby Howlett – were hitless, although Howlett walked twice and was hit by a pitch that ricocheted off her helmet. Beno fought through several hitters’ counts to subdue North at key junctures, and fanned Allison Hausl with the bases loaded and two outs to end the fourth inning.
“Obviously, I wanted to keep Sabrina Rabin off the bases, she’s so fast, and [third baseman Alex Latoria] did a great job doing that,” Beno said. “And I know all of them can hit. I was just trying to work around that.”
If the 80-plus degree weather wasn’t enough of an indication that the postseason is drawing near, a clutch hit from Collalti provided additional evidence. Collalti’s timely hits loomed large during East’s downstate run last year, and Tuesday she sailed a two-out, RBI double over North left fielder Delaney Olinger’s head for the game’s lone run in the top of the fifth.
Tess Hupe, East’s leadoff hitter, went 3 for 3 on the day and reached on a bunt single before scoring on Collalti’s double.
“It’s always great to hit after Tess because she always reads the ‘D’ so well and then we always communicate about what the pitcher’s throwing and all that,” Collalti said. “And it’s really easy to hit RBIs when there’s Tess always in front of you on base.”
East coach Kelly Horan was gratified to see several of her leaders come through in front of the large, crosstown crowd.
“When you talk about who really played great today, you’re talking about Tess, you’re talking about Beno, you’re talking about Sarah Collalti, and what’s the one thing that’s consistent about those three is they’re three-year varsity starters that have played in a ton of tough situations and have played in championship games,” Horan said. “And that’s what today was. Today was a championship game, no doubt about it.”
East (27-5, 17-2 UEC River) has only one conference game remaining against lightly regarded Larkin. North (18-7, 14-3 UEC River) will try to mimic East’s 2013 postseason success after finishing as conference runner-up.
“It’s disappointing because we still feel we’re as good as anybody in the conference but we didn’t earn it today, and we got beat,” North coach Tom Poulin said. “So you just have to say great job to Beno. … I thought at the plate we were taking some strikes and swinging at balls.”
While North had to settle for a pair of singles offensively – from shortstop Mickey Goetz and third baseman Erin Nemetz – the North Stars excelled defensively. Second baseman Kaitlyn Waslawski was especially sharp, including a running catch in shallow, right-center field to deny East a run in the top of the third.
Poulin said he’s been pushing Waslawski to be more assertive defensively in practice.
“She doesn’t realize how good she is,” Poulin said. “She’s very athletic. She’s an outfielder usually in the summer. She can track a ball and go get it as well as anybody.”
Rabin pitched well for North as Hupe and Collalti accounted for all four East hits.
But Beno (17-4), who usually is spoiled by East’s robust offense, showed that she’s not afraid to take control on a day that presented little margin for error.
“I prefer having more runs up there but it makes the game a lot more exciting for us,” Beno said. “ … I mean, we have great hitters on this team, and they score a lot, so I usually don’t have as much pressure when I’m in the circle.”
Horan has coached in East’s program for nine years, the last five as head coach. This marks the Saints’ first conference title during that span, and Horan wasn’t sure how long before the drought extends.
North, of course, has had plenty to do with that.
“Being a softball player in St. Charles has got to be every little kid’s dream,” Horan said. “You’re either going to go to East or North and see the two teams consistently play at a high level. It’s got to be exciting. What a great game.”