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Blue Devils finish 4th at state softball finals, Lillard cherishes final season

Jun. 2—PEORIA — Villa Grove softball coach Jeana Block took the opportunity to address her team one last time. Parents started gathering behind her to take pictures of the Blue Devils, having just completed the most successful season in program history. It wasn't the outcome they wanted — a 4-1 loss to eventual state champion AlWood in Friday's semifinals and a 13-2 loss to Trico in Saturday's consolation game — but this was a season to remember.

That's the message Block needed to get across to her team. By the end of it, the tears running down the players' cheeks had faded, and smiles began creeping onto their faces. Perfect timing with a few dozen cameras waiting just a few steps away. With the rest of their teammates behind them, the six seniors knelt in front with arms around one another, surrounding their Class 1A fourth-place state trophy.

"I told them how proud I was of them," Block said, admitting she was going to have a hard time wiping the smile off her face. "I just told them to be proud of what they did. Our community's been great. We've had a gazillion text messages and emails and businesses in town showing the games. We feel a lot of love from home. They brought a lot of joy to Villa Grove, and I told them to own that and enjoy the moment."

The one Blue Devil who enjoyed this season more than any other was senior Logan Lillard, and it was because she finally got to play from start to finish.

Lillard was a four-year member of the Villa Grove volleyball, girls' golf and softball teams. However, this spring was the first time she was able to stay healthy for an entire season. She broke her finger as a freshman, sprained her ankle as a sophomore and dislocated her knee as a junior.

"I've been so passionate with our sports at Villa Grove, so being able to go out with a bang and a full season has been amazing," Lillard said. "I'm so glad I was able to make it all the way here. It's completely different when you're on the bench and you're hurt and can't do anything about it. To be out here is really cool."

At the beginning of this season, Block listed five goals for her team, and they all involved winning. From winning the Lincoln Prairie Conference, which the Blue Devils came one game shy of accomplishing, to regionals and all the way to making the state finals for the first time in school history. Throughout this whole journey, though, Block had a sixth goal in her back pocket: getting Lillard to finish a season.

Lillard, who will continue her softball career at Lake Land College next year, did everything she could for the team while sidelined the last three years. She scheduled her rehab and doctor's appointments around practices and games so she could be there to help in any way possible. As a pitcher, she helped call pitches, learning more about the game from a coach's point of view. Perhaps most importantly, she was her teammates' biggest cheerleader.

"It's been tough, but she's a great kid and a great leader," Block said. "She's earned it as much as anyone, and it's been a joy to watch her finally overcome all this hard work. She's got a big comeback story."

And to have her last high school athletic season culminate in a trip to Peoria for the state finals at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex made her return that much more special.

"I'm so beyond thankful and blessed," Lillard said. "Only four teams from 1A get to this point, and it's amazing that our team was able to get here. We've pushed each other and cheered each other on throughout everything. We've had hardships, but we came back stronger every time. I'm so proud of our team."

Villa Grove's (25-14-1) third-place game got off to a near-identical start as the semifinal, with Trico (28-6) senior Zoey Kellerman blasting a two-out, two-run home run in the top of the first inning. The Pioneers added another run in the second inning before exploding in the third. They sent 14 batters to the plate, scoring 10 runs on seven hits to take a 13-0 lead before the Blue Devils had even made one trip through the order.

Once Villa Grove's starters had each had a turn to bat, Block started subbing in her reserve players. That was a point of emphasis earlier in the week, as the coaches wanted to do the best they could to give each of their players a chance on the state stage.

"That was important," Block said. "Clearly, if it's a one- or two-run game, we're not looking for it, but I said, 'If we're up a lot or find ourselves down a lot, I want to see every single kid's picture up on that board.'"

Heading into the bottom of the fifth inning, the Blue Devils faced the same deficit, now with the possibility of ending the game by run rule if they didn't score at least four runs. While they weren't able to delay the end of the game as well as their season, the Blue Devils had one last rally in them.

Izzy Dodd led off with a walk, followed by a single from Ella Schweighart. Two batters later, Kayln Cordes drilled a double to the left-field wall to score both runners and get the Villa Grove fans braving the rainy weather as loud as they had been all weekend.

"I really don't know how to feel about it," Cordes, a senior, said as tears built up in her eyes. "It's a bittersweet ending for me. That was my last ever softball game. I'm just proud that that's the way I got to wrap up the season."

The game ended two batters after Cordes' big swing, and the Blue Devils were soon standing on the field adjacent to the one they had just played on, receiving their fourth-place medals from their eighth-year coach.

"It was pretty surreal," Block said of sharing that moment with her players. "It was fun. It was good to look them in the eye and reward them for all the hard work they've put in."

Villa Grove started this season 8-10-1 before rattling off 17 wins in 19 games to make school history and advance to the state finals. Many of the Blue Devils were disappointed with how it ended, but they were one of only four 1A teams still playing on the last day of the season. That's something to smile about.

"We just had to keep reminding the girls that this is the first time we've done this, and it's going to be hard to get back," Lillard said. "Just admiring it, taking it all in and being happy that we're here, that was really important. That was the mindset we needed, to be pleased that we're here."