EAST PEORIA – Newly-awarded medals swung from Kaneland softball players' necks late Saturday morning as seven seniors, nine juniors, two sophomores and a freshman collaborated with their coaches to hoist a trophy.
"It would be nice to be playing in the other game, but it's still great that we've made it here and that we got third," Knights junior left fielder Courtney Davis said. "It's a great accomplishment."
If it was any consolation, Kaneland's 7-1 victory against Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin in the Class 3A third-place game ended a few minutes before Washington defeated Marengo, 2-1, for the state title at a bustling EastSide Centre, whose officials were bent on staying ahead of stormy weather.
Mugging for photos when they weren't embracing teammates, family and friends, the Knights arguably appeared as joyous as any other team to anyone gathered at the spacious recreation complex for anything other than softball.
"We just approached it as there's only two teams in the state of Illinois that get to win their last game," senior right-hander Angie Morrow said, "and we wanted to be one of those two teams."
A staunch closing outing from the Wisconsin-bound Morrow (seven innings, six hits, one run, five strikeouts, two walks) and a six-run, fifth-inning outburst propelled the Knights to the program's first state trophy.
Kaneland (25-9) used five hits and two Griffins errors to fuel the fifth-inning outburst, which saw seven straight Knights reach base with one out.
Beginning the game at 9 a.m., one hour earlier than originally scheduled, the Knights admittedly took their time in adjusting to SHG junior right-hander Whitney David's off-speed array.
"She was a little slower than we were used to in the postseason, so it took … a bit to really get on her," Davis said. "But we waited on her. The umpire had a smaller zone, so we kind of just worked toward that, so once we got on her, we started getting those hits."
SHG (34-8) summoned Bailey Morrow to relieve David in the middle of the rally, but to no avail.
Bailey Morrow is of no relation to Angie Morrow, but given the Knights' giddiness after the game, they might have entertained prospects of welcoming her to the extended family.
"This is just a great team, and I'm really sad to see the seniors go, but we came out with a bang, definitely," junior center fielder Rachel Goress said. "With the fifth seed in the [sectional], we really showed them who we are."
Making the second state appearance in school history and the first since 2000, Kaneland's run has yet to sway interim coach Peter Goff, the school's athletic director who grinned while maintaining, "This is a one-year thing."
Goff will be in the rare position of searching for his replacement on the heels of a banner season.
Whether assistant Mike Kuefler might be elevated to the position remains to be seen, but the father of senior lynchpin and catcher Paige Kuefler knows he's not leaving the program either way.
"'You know what, I'm going to stay a Kaneland Knight as long as they'll let me stay a Kaneland Knight," he said.
Kaneland was held hitless until junior third baseman Meg Cohrs smacked the first of her three singles with one out in the fourth inning. She later added an RBI.
Sophomore shortstop Morgan Weber's run-scoring double in the fifth was the team's lone extra-base hit.
Even Morrow, batting in a game for just the second time this spring, joined in the act, following Aly Jesionowski's rally-starting single in the fifth with a hit of her own.
Morrow volunteered to hit as Goress, who pinched the rotator cuff in her left, non-throwing shoulder early in Friday's 2-1 semifinal loss to Marengo, determined she would best serve the team with her defense.
Cohrs playfully chided Morrow after a first-inning groundout to shortstop. After doubling in her only other at-bat during last month's senior night shutout of Genoa-Kingston, Morrow ensured she wouldn't bat 1.000 in her final prep season.
"I had nothing to lose, so I was just going up there and going for a hit," Morrow said.
The rest of the Knights followed suit. Despite the early struggles against David, the team did not strike out in the game after fanning just three times Friday.
"The thing is … we were making contact, and if you make contact, sooner or later, you're going to get it," Goff said. "And you know what, we did."
Kaneland looked forward to a warm reception upon returning home. This weekend, the team stayed in Pekin, about 20 minutes south of East Peoria, and enjoyed the solitude from state tournament central.
After Friday's game, the team dressed up to dine at the Pekin Avanti's, a central Illinois chain of Italian restaurants.
"It was unbelievable, the transformation," Goff said. "You'd never know that we just lost a semifinal game, 2-1."
Davis called the outing "one last hurrah."
Well, at least before the Knights kept swinging in their 2015 diamond finale.
"Yesterday was a tough loss, but I think we came back really well," Cohrs said. "I mean, we were flat, but then we had that inning and we started hitting. It's huge. It's probably going to stand in our school for a really long time, the ... team to go (deepest) downstate. It's awesome."