Spartans' season ends with back-and-forth battle in sectional-semifinal loss

May 22—MONTICELLO — Of course it came down to Timera Blackburn-Kelley.

How could it not, especially after she pitched St. Joseph-Ogden to its first regional championship since 2019 last week and provided the spark the Spartans needed at the plate to make Tuesday's Class 2A Monticello Sectional semifinal matchup with Effingham St. Anthony one of the best games of the season?

The sophomore took a couple big practice swings, stepped into the batter's box and battled one last time.

Unfortunately for SJ-O, Blackburn-Kelley's heroics had just run out. As she swung and missed for strike three, the Bulldogs celebrated an 11-10 victory to move them into Friday's sectional final, and the Spartans' best season in six years came to an end.

"Obviously, nobody wanted to lose that game," SJ-O coach Larry Sparks said. "Somebody takes the lead, and the other team fights back. It's just what you want. It's a great game if you're a fan, and it sucks when you're on the losing side of it. ... This is a special group."

The first punch came in the second inning, as St. Anthony put up the game's first five runs off of Madison Stevens. The damage could have been even worse if not for Addy Martinie making numerous diving plays at shortstop.

Blackburn-Kelley entered the circle and struck out the first batter she faced to end the inning.

Sparks said he's expecting some to question why he started Stevens, especially after Blackburn-Kelley pitched two complete games with a combined 22 strikeouts while only allowing one run and seven hits in the regional, but he was comfortable with the decision, adding that "Madison has done that all year."

Regardless, the Spartans (30-7) faced an early 5-0 deficit.

Blackburn-Kelley was the first to score, and she did it all by herself. She walked in the third inning, just the second Spartan to reach base to that point. She then stole second base, stole third and stole home after the catcher threw the ball to first on a dropped third strike.

"I was like, 'We can't lose,'" Blackburn-Kelley said. "I was going to do anything I could to help. Once I got going, I feel like it helped everybody else."

She retired St. Anthony in order in the top of the fourth inning, and then, the Spartans' bats caught fire.

Grace Osterbur led off with a single, SJO's first hit of the game. Three batters later, Hayden Dahl knocked in a run with an RBI single, immediately followed by a two-run single from Emma McKinney. Just like that, the Spartans were within one, but Blackburn-Kelley wasn't done making her presence felt, as she blasted a two-run home run over the center-field fence and onto the hill taken over by a wave of SJ-O fans to give them the lead. Addison Frick added one last RBI single in the inning for good measure.

"Those are the moments I'm going to remember," Frick, a senior, said. "They're amazing, and I feel like everyone is super hyped. I couldn't ask for more of them."

The Bulldogs fought right back with a trio of solo home runs in the first four batters of the following inning to retake the lead. They added two more runs on the fifth inning to make it 10-7.

The first thing Sparks said after the game was "There's no quit in this team," and it showed for a second time in the sixth inning.

Ellie Ward and Blackburn-Kelley started the turn at bat with a pair of hit-by-pitches. Frick tallied another RBI single, and Martinie put the exclamation point on the inning with a two-run double over the center fielder's head to tie it at 10.

"You look at the dugout across the field, and they're jumping up and down, doing the conga line and everything else that goes with it," Sparks said with a chuckle. "This team truly got along."

The Bulldogs hit their fourth home run of the day in the top of the seventh, giving the Spartans one last hole to attempt to climb out of, but it wasn't meant to be.

This was SJ-O's best season in Sparks' six-year tenure and the first 30-win campaign since Randy Wolken's final run in 2018.

Wolken, who won an IHSA-record 1,044 games at SJ-O, was in attendance for the Spartans' final game. He said the fundamentals they showed this year reminded him of some of his championship teams he coached in the past. The hitting and pitching were solid, and he loved the combination of stealing and bunting, strategies he used plenty in his 39 years of coaching.

"It was an upgrade in about every part of the game," Wolken said of the team's performance this year. "Winning 30 games is pretty impressive, and getting into this sectional is huge. I think this is going to be a springboard for them going into next year."

SJ-O is losing seven seniors, including five regular starters, who Sparks said will be "a tough group to lose."

The Spartans are also returning a core group of talented underclassmen, highlighted by junior Osterbur, sophomores Blackburn-Kelley and McKinney and freshman Dahl. They played a big role this season and will undoubtedly be even more crucial to the team's success next year. And like SJ-O has done year after year, it'll fill in the gaps with talented up-and-comers.

"We have some young ones coming up," Blackburn-Kelley said with a look of excitement for next year. "We'll have to find new people to fill roles, but I feel like we've got this."