Haley Helm's no-hitter leads Maroons past rivals

Apr. 26—CHAMPAIGN — Haley Helm didn't know she was throwing a perfect game. The Champaign Central freshman had retired all 11 batters she'd faced Thursday and, with a 10-run lead, was four outs away from accomplishing the rare feat.

With two outs in the top of the fourth inning, Urbana's Keylieanna Archie stepped up to the plate and worked a walk, ending Helm's perfect-game bid, but the no-hitter was still intact. Helm walked another batter to start the fifth inning, but she set down the next three to complete the no-hitter with eight strikeouts and give the Maroons a 10-0 win.

"I was more frustrated about the walks, but I knew my team had my back," Helm said. "No matter what pitch I threw or where they hit it, they always had my back. I'm not the only person out there doing my job. It's everybody."

Central coach Mike Williams said he had a feeling Helm would be a solid player, and a lot of that had to do with her older sister, junior Kaitlyn Helm, who went 2-for-2 with a walk and two RBI Thursday, being one herself.

"We knew going into the season that we had a special pitcher in Haley," Williams said. "We've seen her grow even in the last month. Lots of first-pitch strikes, really going at the hitters and looking for easy innings, trying to get ground balls instead of trying to strike everybody out. That's been the plan, and we've seen her get better and better through the weeks."

Along with her pitching, Haley Helm also hit a double at the plate to help an offense for the Maroons (10-8-1) that scored all 10 of its runs in the second and third innings. Following Kaitlyn Helm's lead, Molly Kloeppel had two hits, Ryan Barrett tallied a double and a walk, Tayten Hunter hit a triple and Marin Boehm and Grace Bandy combined for five RBI.

Williams said there were a few pitches he believes his players could have swung at to do even more damage Thursday. Even so, they consistently put the bat on the ball and took advantage of three Tiger (1-9) errors, showing how "putting the ball in play is really important."

"We've been struggling with confidence about just getting up there and hitting," Haley Helm said. "We're getting more confidence in our at-bats, and it's really helping us. We're just having fun."

Central had plenty of fun, but Urbana had just as much fun, despite the final score.

Sophomore Lizzy Lange pitched all four innings for the Tigers, and although she allowed nine hits and seven earned runs, they were more than happy with her play.

That was just one thing the Tigers addressed in their postgame huddle. Urbana doesn't have any seniors on the roster and starts four freshmen and three sophomores. It's a young, inexperienced team looking to celebrate whenever they can, like when Archie and Dara Norris walked.

"The little victories, like getting bunts down when we needed it," Urbana coach Lauren Matson said. "Lizzy pitched a fantastic game and persevered through the errors we had. We've got to stay positive and have fun even when we're not winning softball games.

"Every day, I tell them, 'We're out here to have fun, and we're out here to compete.' We don't always get the results we want, but it's more important to have fun and enjoy yourself while you're out here. Otherwise, it's a waste of time for all of us. We try to keep it light and fun and enjoy ourselves."

Central assistant coach Chris Kloeppel was on the microphone as the public-address announcer Thursday, and he had fun with it, giving out nicknames to every player as they stepped into the batter's box. He caused plenty of laughter from the dugouts and stands introducing the Maroons' first two batters, calling Kaitlyn Helm "Kit Kat" and Hunter "Tater tot."

Williams said having Kloeppel and assistant coach Travis Swanstrom be themselves has helped him and his players stay loose.

"I'm a pretty serious dude, and I'm all business. Having coach Chris and coach Travis, they're a good contrast to me," Williams said. "It keeps the girls light. ... I feel really fortunate to be in the position we're in with the culture and those kind of things. We've got something special."

Speaking of something special, the Maroons believe they have that brewing this season. Thursday's win kept them undefeated in Big 12 Conference play, and they're looking to "take an additional step forward" after falling to Mt. Zion in the regional championship last year.

"We have a good team, and we have a bunch of great girls," Haley Helm said. "We're just going to keep winning, and I think we can go far. Our confidence is growing so much, and I think we're going to go places."