Blackburn-Kelley's career game leads SJ-O softball to regional final

May 15—ST. JOSEPH — Timera Blackburn-Kelly was three outs away from completing a shutout. The St. Joseph-Ogden sophomore stud pitcher held Cumberland scoreless for the first six innings of Tuesday's Class 2A regional semifinal game at Randy Wolken Field, and no one expected any different in the seventh.

Three batters later, the Pirates had runners on second and third base with only one out. Still, nobody batted an eye, almost like they knew what was coming.

Blackburn-Kelly calmly reentered the circle and struck out the next two batters to end the game with a career-high 13 strikeouts and give the Spartans a 4-0 win.

"Just my teammates and knowing they're behind me," Blackburn-Kelly said of the key to her success this season. "I get nervous, but I know I've been in that situation, so I just tough it out."

She was actually in that situation more often than not Tuesday. In four of her seven innings pitched, Blackburn-Kelly worked her way out of danger, recording the final out of those innings with at least one runner in scoring position.

The ace for SJ-O (29-6) walked the second batter of the game, and the next hitter singled. Those runners made their way to second and third base, but Blackburn-Kelly then struck out six in a row. In the fourth inning, the leadoff batter doubled off the wall and made her way to third base on a wild pitch, but the next two struck out. The top of the sixth inning had an exciting ending, as Hayden Dahl caught a flyball in right field and threw the ball to Addie Martinie, who relayed it to Halle Brazelton. The play ended with Brazelton tagging out a runner trying to make it to third. Then, of course, there was the seventh inning.

"She's consistent," SJ-O coach Larry Sparks said. "She knows the girls in the field have her back. The ball is put in play, and they make the out. They've done it all year."

It was a redemption game of sorts for Blackburn-Kelly, who broke her arm the game before the postseason started last year. She's bounced back in a big way, becoming the Spartans' clear-cut top pitching option as a sophomore. Tuesday was her first postseason game, and it was also one of her best.

"I felt like I needed to prove myself," Blackburn-Kelly said. "It was exciting knowing that I could come back and redeem myself."

Blackburn-Kelly's performance made it so SJ-O didn't need much offense. The Spartans didn't have their best game with the bats, but Dahl stood out, driving in a run in each of her first two at-bats. Dahl, a freshman, has been on a tear at the plate, especially over the last month, earning her a bump up to the fifth spot in the batting order a couple weeks ago. She said she hasn't felt much pressure during her recent hot streak, and her teammates have supported her the whole way.

"At the beginning of the season, I was definitely really nervous. Now, the team has really welcomed me, so it's been really fun," Dahl said. "I was really surprised at how much I was able to contribute. It's been a rollercoaster, that's for sure."

Dahl is the latest freshman to contribute right away for the Spartans. Seniors Addy Martinie and Addison Frick started as freshmen, and senior Halle Brazelton and junior Grace Osterbur also got some playing time their freshman seasons. Brazelton got on base three times and tallied the team's other two RBI on Tuesday, and Martinie drew two walks and scored two runs.

Sparks took over the SJ-O program in 2019 for legendary coach Randy Wolken, who won an IHSA-record 1,044 games in 39 years coaching the Spartans. Sparks said Wolken built a well-oiled machine, evident in that he hasn't seemed to have a weak spot in the lineup over his first five years coaching the team.

"Ever since I got here, when I took over for Randy, it's almost like you're coaching a small college. You graduate four or five, and here come four or five more," Sparks said. "We try to instill everything all the way down to our JV program so that, when those kids leave, we have pieces to come in and bridge those gaps. In this case, it happens to be a freshman. We just go with whatever gets us wins."

SJ-O has used that formula to the tune of 29 wins so far, the most for a season in Sparks' tenure, including 13 in a row with Tuesday's regional semifinal win. The Spartans will have a shot at a 30-win season in Saturday's regional championship, where they'll play the winner of Wednesday's other semifinal between Unity and Monticello.