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High School Softball: Marist tops Lincoln-Way Central for program’s third state title

By Randy Whalen
Correspondent

A gutsy performance for the ages helped Marist to the third state championship in program history.

Abby Dunning, arguably the top pitcher in the state and this season’s Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year, fought through dehydration over the final two innings of a complete game in a 3-1 victory over Lincoln-Way Central in the Class 4A state title game.

The title game was played June 17 at the Louisville Slugger Complex in Peoria.

It was the third state title for Marist, which also won it all in 2012 and 2015. The RedHawks (38-1), who set a school record for victories, thought they had the best team two years ago, too, but lost both games at state to finish fourth.

The 2020 spring athletics season was canceled because of the pandemic.

“I know the team we have here,” said Dunning, who had eight strikeouts in the title game. “It’s like no other team. It’s a group effort. Everyone works together.”

Dunning, who fired a no-hitter in a 1-0 win over Huntley in the semifinals, was cruising along with a one-hitter and a 3-0 lead through five innings. But Lincoln-Way Central junior pitcher Lindsey Grein led off by reaching on an error, and Dunning walked Knights senior center fielder Sydra Seville on a full count.

Dunning then went to a full count senior third baseman Carly Alvers, a four-year varsity player who entered the state tourney as the team’s leading hitter at .433. At that point, Dunning experienced cramping in her pitching arm and called time out.

“My body started to cramp and get super tight because I was super dehydrated,” Dunning said. “That has never happened to me before. I was super scared.”

The game then got tenser for the Marist faithful as Alvers knocked the pitch up the middle for an RBI single, closing the gap to 3-1. But Dunning worked out of the jam by getting a ground out, a hard-hit liner to left and a strikeout to end the inning.

“That was huge,” Dunning said of the strikeout. “It gave us hope we could finish this out. Then we put Biofreeze on (her arm). We rolled it out and I had Gatorade, electrolytes, I chugged water.”

Grein, who retired the last 11 Marist hitters in a row after a shaky start, put the RedHawks down in order in the top of the seventh. That set the stage for a tense finish.

Senior right fielder Grace Kmak led off the seventh with Lincoln-Way Central’s third and final hit, a single to left. After a deep flyout to left by senior designated player Grace Erickson, junior second baseman Jamie Widule walked on four pitches, putting runners at first and second.

At this point, Dunning was cramping again. After a visit to the mound, she stayed in to face her counterpart in Grein.

In the Knights’ 4-0 semifinal win over Minooka, Grein had cemented it with a two-run home run in the seventh. Grein did not duplicate that, but she hit a 3-1 pitch right on the screws. It was a low liner that looked like it could be ticketed down the third baseline.

But RedHawks junior third baseman Kaitlyn Wright sprawled out and snared it near to the ground for the second out.

“I grabbed that ball and I thanked the good Lord that I caught it,” Wright said. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life.

“Abby is one of the best pitchers I’ve ever seen. She is a rock star, and our defense always has her back, no matter what.”

Grein lamented what could have been.

“I can only do so much,” Grein said of the hit. “If it lands in the field, it’s different. We just came in saying we were going to do our best and that’s what we all did. They’re are a very talented group of girls, but so are we.”

The next batter, Seville, worked the count full before hitting a rope to left field. The ball held up for sophomore left fielder Isabel Cunnea to get under and make the catch. The relieved RedHawks then piled on in the middle of the infield in celebration.

“Yeah, I had a lot of action out there,” Cunnea said. “That last ball … I was not letting that thing drop for the life of me. I would have dove for it, I would have blocked it with my body. Abby worked so hard this whole year, we had to back her up on the field. We all deserve this. I’m so proud of our team.”

Marist scored a run in the first on an RBI single by Cunnea. The RedHawks added two more runs in the third on a perfect squeeze bunt single by junior left fielder Sierra Sass and a fielders choice force out from sophomore designated player Eileen Donahue (1-for-3).

Kali Case, a senior center fielder, and the Marist leadoff hitter had a single to start the game and scored two runs. Senior shortstop Easton Lotus, junior first baseman Gianna Richy and Wright also added singles. Grein (28-4), a right-hander, went all seven innings. She allowed seven hits to seven different players, with two strikeouts, a hit by pitch, and no walks.

Dunning fired a no-hitter in the semifinal with 13 strikeouts and three walks. That made sure the RedHawks avenged a 3-2 loss to Huntley in the 2019 state semifinals.

“That is great, but that’s with the help of my defense,” Dunning said after the semifinal victory. “They made great plays behind me. I couldn’t have done it without everyone on this team. “Every other pitch my teammates were coming up and giving me high fives. They have my back, I have confidence in myself, and I have confidence in my team. Just our team chemistry brought us to victory.”

The RedHawks scored the only run of the game in the bottom of the third. Lotus was on second base with two outs when Cunnea chopped a ball toward junior shortstop Reese Hunkins, who with Lotus crossing in front of her, didn’t make the play. Lotus scored what was the one-and-only run.

“I wasn’t trying to do that,” Lotus said. “I was trying to run around her because if I made contact with the ball I would be out. I didn’t want a dead ball situation.”

Dunning finished the season with a 0.25 ERA and struck out 338 batters, while allowing six earned runs and 36 hits in 163 innings.

“I just know how strong of a player Abby is,” Marist senior catcher Emily Bojan said. “In the last inning (of the championship game) I was like, ‘Abby, you’ve been playing this whole season for this moment. You know how great you are. Dig deep and just get three more outs.’

“That’s what she did. She gave it her all. We all gave it our all and played for each other. We always had each other’s backs.”

And in the end, Dunning was all heart.

“It wasn’t her body doing that out there,” Marist coach Colleen Phelan said of the end of the title game. “It was her heart doing that in the last two innings.”

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