Helm sisters set tone, send Maroons to regional final: 'That felt really good'

May 23—MAHOMET — Kaitlyn Helm cruised into second base with a leadoff double to get Champaign Central's offense rolling right out of the gate. At least, she thought it was a double.

Helm thought the ball she smoked to right-center field bounced over the fence, and she was excited for her teammates to have the chance to drive her home.

In reality, she had already done that herself, as the ball sailed over the fence on the fly for a home run to give the Maroons a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning.

"Everyone was looking at me like, 'You're an idiot,'" Helm said with a laugh. "I just genuinely didn't know. I'm not as strong as I was my freshman year. Now, I feel like I've gotten my momentum back, so that felt really good."

What a way to start the Maroons' Class 3A regional semifinal matchup against host Mahomet-Seymour on Wednesday. Helm's teammates mobbed her at the plate as she got the first run on the board. Tayten Hunter, Haley Helm and Mya de la Cruz all followed that with singles to push two more runs across and give the Maroons a 3-0 lead, which led to a 12-2 win.

"We'll take it," Central coach Mike Williams said, admitting he didn't know Kaitlyn Helm's hit cleared the fence, either. "It set a really good tone for us to hold them in the top of the first and get a run right away. It let everybody exhale and think 'OK, we can attack.'"

Helm has been a consistent leadoff batter for the Maroons (16-11-1) all season, and Wednesday was just another example. She finished the game with two RBI and three runs scored, just a triple away from hitting for the cycle.

"I just love that I could get us one run and everybody else could contribute after me," Helm said. "I know I set the tone, but I generally don't have to because I can always rely on them to pick me up and still get runs on the board if I get out."

The Maroons put up four more runs in the fourth inning thanks to doubles from de la Cruz, Molly Kloeppel and Helm and singles from Ryan Barrett and Grace Bandy.

All the while, Haley Helm was pitching yet another gem. The freshman held the Bulldogs (6-23) scoreless through the first five innings, striking out five batters and only allowing two hits in that time. She's one of four freshman starters for Central this season — joined by Bandy, de la Cruz and Kloeppel — and they combined for seven hits and five RBI on Wednesday.

"It's one thing to sit and look at the stats, and they're at the top of all of them for us, but it's another thing to see how Haley and the rest of that freshman crew came in with no hesitation," Williams said. "They've been confident about what they can bring to the program the entire year. It's been so impressive to watch them to get out there and lead."

It looked like the Maroons were well on their way to a run-rule victory, but M-S didn't go down without a fight.

Kalista Granadino, who doubled earlier, walked to lead off the top of the sixth inning, and Madi White followed with a single. Then Maddie Logsdon and Rio Casillas tallied back-to-back RBI singles to make it a 7-2 ballgame.

"They've been fighting all year," M-S coach James Heinold said. "We've lost a lot of close games, so they know what it's like to keep fighting in the later part of games. All I ask is they keep battling and do what they can."

Central responded with its biggest inning yet, scoring five runs on six hits in the bottom of the sixth, capped off by Barrett's run-rule-clinching RBI single.

Behind Kaitlyn Helm's performance, Bandy, de la Cruz, Kloeppel and Barrett each recorded a pair of hits, and Kloeppel and Maisie Bowers drove in three runs apiece.

The Bulldogs' loss ended their season, but the mood in the dugout never changed. They were just as engaged and loud during the final at-bat as they were for the first. That was encouraging for Heinold, especially for a young team with only three seniors.

"We had our ups and downs," Heinold said. "The girls learned a lot and came a long way. Made a lot of improvements. We struggled at the beginning of the year but started playing some really good ball in the middle of the season. The girls battled, worked hard and gave their best effort all year. I'm proud of them for doing that."

As for the Maroons, they move on to play Charleston in Thursday's regional championship, hoping to avenge last year's 10-0 loss to Mt. Zion in the regional final and win their first title since 1981.

Williams said he knows Haley Helm will keep it a low-scoring game in the circle, and he's confident they'll come away with a win if Central's lineup can keep the foot on the gas and continue to go on runs here and there like it did on Wednesday.

Kaitlyn Helm's key was a little different, having everything to do with the energy the Maroons bring to the field.

"Obnoxious energy," Helm said. "When we played Normal Community back in April, we were super loud and super annoying. I'm pretty sure we woke up the whole neighborhood. If we bring that energy, we'll be fine."