Highland falls to Effingham in softball regional semifinal

A fast start and a strong finish were what the Highland High School softball team needed to upend a heavy-hitting Effingham Flaming Hearts team that entered the Class 3A Highland regional with the number three seed on Tuesday.

A quick 1-0 lead gave the seventh-seeded Bulldogs that early hope but Effingham’s big bats soon woke up.

Effingham scored a pair of runs in the bottom of the first off a Sidney Donaldson two-run home run and then exploded for six runs in the bottom of the second inning, rolling to a 13-6 victory in an IHSA Class 3A regional semifinal contest at Highland High School.

Effingham (22-9) will play Salem in the championship game at 4:30 p.m. Friday at Highland.

Seeing his team start strong in the postseason with a 14-hit output was a welcome sight for Effingham coach Jerry Trigg. “Our hitting has been the strength of our team all year and we’ve been hitting over .400 for the year, and we’ve hit up and down the lineup all year,” Trigg said.

Highland grabbed the lead when Lucy Becker led off with a double to right field and scored off Abby Schultz’s double to left, making it 1-0 in the top of the first inning.

Effingham erased the lead in the bottom of the first on a two-run homer to left field by Donaldson.

In the bottom of the second, the Flaming Hearts’ big bats erupted for a six-run surge that put Effingham in control.

“That was huge,” Trigg said. Anytime you can get a momentum switch like we did, we bounced right back and that’s what good teams do. Bounce back.”

Two run homers by Alyssa Martin and Natalie Armstrong powered the onslaught and put Highland starter Kaitlyn Wilson and HHS in an 8-1 hole that would be nearly impossible to escape.

“I felt pretty good going into the second with that 1-0 lead to start and usually anytime we jump out early we have pretty good success,” Highland coach Chris Nikonovich said. “Their bats, they got into it and a couple of their balls got hit normally you don’t see them go outside of the park but the wind was helping them today and that’s part of the game. They had the hotter bats today.”

Effingham pushed the lead to 11-1 with three runs in the bottom of the third inning as Alyssa Kirk, Raegan Boone and Donaldson produced run-scoring singles. Boone had four hits and scored four runs while Donaldson went 2 for 4 with a homer and three RBIs.

After struggling for three innings at the plate, Highland got their bats going in the top of the fifth, thanks to a four-run rally.

Lucy Becker had the big hit in the frame with a two-run double to left and Wilson’s RBI-single to right cut the gap to 11-5.

Nikonovich was pleased to see his club claw back into it in the fifth. “We had really good momentum going into it (the sixth inning), Nikonovich said. “I was kind of proud of that and that’s that grit that we’ve talked about all season long and they showed it and that’s what the Highland Bulldogs were about this year. Grit.”

The Flaming Hearts got their final two runs of the day in the bottom of the fifth on an RBI-single by Jerzi Bierman and a run-scoring double from Armstrong.

Effingham hurler Saige Althoff was solid in the circle despite the four-run fifth inning, Althoff pitched all seven innings, giving up six runs on 11 hits, getting the win.

“Saige has come on pitching really well lately and today she just kind of lost it in the fifth inning but she’s been pretty strong against good teams,” Trigg said. “I think she lost a little bit of her snap on the ball in the fifth and she got a little upset and decided she was gonna bear down a little more. She did a good job.”

HHS got their final run in the top of the sixth on Schultz’s homer over the left field fence. Schultz finished her final game as a Bulldog going 4 for 4 with a home run, and three RBIs. Becker was also solid at the plate, going 2 for 4 with a run scored. Highland finished the day with 11 hits.

Although Nikonovich was disappointed to see the Bulldogs’ season end with a 13-12 record, he looked at the regional experience as a chance for his young team to improve in the future.

“We’re going to look at this as an opportunity for growth and get better for next year,” Nikonovich said.