Illini second in World Series
Club softball team stumbles against Clemson Tigers
By Steve Metsch
Sometimes in softball, all it takes is one inning to derail a seemingly unstoppable team.
The University of Illinois women had won seven straight games in the National Club Softball Association World Series to earn a berth in the title game.
Since it was a double-elimination tournament, Illinois could lose once to Clemson and still be the champ if it won the rematch.
Nobody – not even the most diehard Clemson fans ringing their persistent cow bells – could have expected what unfolded.
Clemson erupted for seven runs in the first inning of the first game, then added 13 in the fifth en route to a 22-5 romp. That set up a winner-take-all game under the lights on May 23.
A four-run fifth inning fueled Clemson to a 7-2 win and the championship. Clemson ace Sara Lewis got her revenge. After losing the semifinal to Illinois earlier, the senior shut down the Illini in the clincher, allowing just two runs in the bottom of the seventh.
The Illinois team celebrates a two-run homer by Carol Hett (right) in the first inning of the game that Clemson won 22-5. Photo by Steve Metsch.
Carol Hett – the Illinois club president, manager and starting shortstop who hit a two-run homer in the first title game – smiled and shrugged when asked what happened.
“I’m not sure, to be honest,” Hett, of Plainfield, said. “We went into it confident. But we lost to a really good team. They outplayed us, for sure.”
A flurry of uncharacteristic mental and physical errors, along with some hard-hit balls, fueled Clemson’s seven-run outburst.
“It’s hard to stop once it’s in your head and you get down, but I think we persevered best as we could,” Hett said. “The outcome isn’t what we wanted, but ultimately we played a really good tournament, so I’m happy with that.”
Clemson Coach Erik Muir said his team was inspired after losing 9-0 to Illinois in the semifinal earlier.
“It kind of irritated them a little bit because they don’t like to lose,” Muir said. “We had to come out with confidence.”
Senior Krystal Levitske, of Willow Springs and Nazareth Academy, was hit hard in that fateful first inning and wound up being yanked in the second inning.
“Sometimes, (the other team) gets the bat on the ball,” Levitske said.
Muir said his team hits better against faster pitchers like Levitske. “We knew that (speed) was in our wheelhouse and we started hitting.”
“Girls softball is 95 percent between the ears, it really is,” Muir said. “If you can get them rolling and get them confident, you can win them all.”
Hett was impressed by the pitching of starters Levitske and Kacie Vlach in the first seven games, all Illini wins.
Included was a 9-0 win that saw Vlach baffle Clemson batters in the semifinal on the morning of May 23. Vlach, a junior, tossed her third shutout of the Series. “She was rocking this tournament,” Hett said.
Hopes were high as the Illini shrugged off the rout. In typical fashion, the team was loose before the final game, dancing to music in front of their dugout.
The game was close until a three-run double made it 6-0 in the fifth. Illinois staged a rally in the bottom of the seventh, scoring twice and loading the bases with one out, but that was it.
The Clemson Tigers hoist the trophy after beating Illinois twice on Sunday. Photo by Steve Metsch.
Asked why the team lost 22-5, senior catcher Lauren Engels, of La Grange and a Lyons Township High School graduate, said “we went in with a little too much confidence.”
“We were coming off a win in the morning. I feel we had it in the back of our heads, ‘We’ve got this.’ Clemson came in hot because they made it through the losers’ bracket. We were mentally a little bit unprepared,” Engels said.
The avalanche began on the first play of that game. First baseman Madison O’Donnell, of Mahomet, grabbed a soft grounder, tried to tag the batter and missed. The batter was safe and the fuse was lit.
“I was yelling ‘one, one’,” Engels said, meaning she wanted O’Donnell to throw to second baseman Mary O’Brien standing on first base for the easy out.
Then a pop foul near third fell uncaught by Tina Tomala, of Lemont.
“It snowballs. Once someone made a mistake, we kind of got down. Earlier in the weekend, we didn’t let that happen to us,” Engels said. “Those got in our heads.”
Fighting back tears after losing the final game, Vlach said “they saw me through the batting order six, seven times and started hitting.”
After the 2020 World Series was canceled because of the pandemic, Vlach, who played in the 2019 Series with the Illini, couldn’t wait to return to Columbus.
“I loved every minute of it, wouldn’t change it for the world,” she said. “We went 545 days without playing a game.”
Because of the pandemic, most or the 13 schools in the tournament had abbreviated schedules. Illinois played just two games prior, shutting out host Wisconsin-Whitewater 21-0 twice on May 1.
If there was rust, it didn’t show.
Vlach, of Wheaton, beat North Carolina State, 3-0, to open the World Series on May 20. She fanned five, walked none and allowed six hits. Engels drove in two runs.
Levitske followed that with a 5-0 shutout of Iowa State. She fanned eight and allowed four hits.
On May 21, the Illini routed longtime rival Michigan, 13-2. Freshman Mary O’Brien (3-for-3) drove in three runs and Levitske pitched all five innings in the slaughter-rule game. O’Brien lives in Chicago and graduated from Jones College Prep.
Illinois followed that on May 21 with a thrilling 8-7 win over Navy, the champion in 2019 and 2018.
After Navy took a 2-0 lead in the first, Illinois replied with three runs in the bottom of the first.
Then, with the bases loaded and two outs, junior Natalie Metsch, of La Grange and Lyons Township High School – hit a three-run triple to right-center for a 6-2 lead after one inning. (She is this writer’s daughter)
Navy scored two runs in the third and three in the sixth to take a 7-6 lead.
But Illinois scored twice in the bottom of the sixth when Kate Sanders, of Bartonville, hit a double to score Metsch and Megan Ortinau, of Joliet. The Illini held on, 8-7.
On May 22, Illinois beat Iowa State again. Vlach fanned nine, walked none and allowed five hits in the 4-0 win.
Illinois followed that with a 5-2 win over Florida State as Levitske went the distance and Hannah Ban, of Palatine, drove in two runs to put Illinois in the semifinal.
Watching Clemson celebrate, Levitske said “it burns,” adding “it’s fuel for next year.” She will pitch as a graduate student. Vlach will also return as will many others.
Engels, who caught every inning of each game except three innings vs. Navy, said “I was a little exhausted. When my legs are tired, my hitting is worse.”
Lauren Engels tags out an Iowa State runner during the May 22 game won by the Illini. Photo by Steve Metsch.
This was the 14th NCSA World Series and the 11th played in Columbus. Illinois won the first two NCSA World Series in 2007 and 2008. Club softball teams are run by the students, not the university.
A snow cone vendor, taking a break to watch Illinois’ semifinal game against Clemson, asked “where is the manager.” Told it is the shortstop, he smiled.
The teams played at the South Commons Sports Complex. Being the top-seeded team heading in, Illinois played all of its games in the stadium used for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
Clemson came into the World Series as the 2nd seed.
Other teams in the World Series were Sacred Heart, Virginia Tech, Air Force, Arkansas State, East Carolina, and Pittsburgh.There are 144 club softball teams in the nation, but some did not have field teams this season because of the pandemic.
Some girls were teary-eyed after losing the title. Most were hoarse after four days of cheering loudly. It was a bittersweet ending for Engels, whose college softball days are over.
“It’s going to take a while (to get used to),” Engels said. “The highlight of college. Honestly. I’ll never not be grateful for club softball.”
A World Series newcomer was sophomore Carina Martinez, 19, of Naperville.
“It was insane, especially since last year COVID-19 ended our season early,” Martinez said of the experience. “This was my first time being here. It was great to be a part of it.”
“I’ve never gone this far with a team before. This is the best team I ever played for,” she said. “We won conference my junior and senior years (of high school), but we never made it further than that.”
To not win the World Series after being so close “is definitely crushing.” Martinez said.
“It’s very sad because we’re losing our seniors,” Martinez added. “It kind of makes me angry and want to do even better next year. Come back and get our revenge. Win it next year, for sure.”