By Marty Farmer
During the regular season and majority of its run in the IHSA Class 4A state playoffs, the Riverside-Brookfield High School softball team won games primarily via its prolific offense.
The Bulldogs scored double-digit runs in 14 games (highlighted by 20 runs in a game on four occasions) during the regular season and outscored its first three opponents in the postseason by a combined score of 33-5.
However, the Bulldogs offense stalled against Marist in a riveting sectional final.
Generally regarded as the best team in Illinois and among the top 10 teams nationally, the RedHawks escaped with a 1-0 victory in eight innings over RBHS at Lewis University on May 31.
While both teams created some traffic on the bases, neither could score as the RedHawks' Angela Zedak and Bulldogs' Nadia Ranieri (16-3, 2.43 ERA) engaged in a pitching duel.
Marist finally eked out the victory between the sectional's top two seeds when sophomore shortstop Easton Lotus hit an RBI single with the bases loaded in the eighth inning.
"Even after a tough loss, I couldn't be more proud of our team," said Kailyn Ngo, a four-year varsity starter for RBHS. "To lose by one run in the eighth against a team that usually blows other teams out, that says a lot about us. I seriously couldn't ask for a better last season as an RB softball player."
The combination of Zedak, Lotus and Lexi Voss, proved too much to overcome for RBHS. The Northwestern-bound Zedak threw a two-hitter with seven strikeouts. Lotus and Voss, who have committed to Louisville and Michigan, respectively, contributed defensive gems. The RedHawks (35-2) have 11 players committed to Division I college softball teams.
"Zedak is one of the best pitchers in the state," RBHS coach Doug Schutz said. "She has good velocity on her fastball and good movement on her drop ball and curve. We got a few hits off her and had runners on base in all but two innings, but we just couldn't produce any runs. Easton Lotus made some outstanding plays that stopped us from scoring several runs."
Voss also robbed RBHS senior Ashley Lynch of an extra-base hit by catching her long drive at the outfield fence.
To their credit, the Bulldogs matched Marist for essentially the entire game with pitching and difference-making defense.
"Nadia pitched out of three or four jams," Schultz said. "We also played the best defense as a team I've seen, including an awesome double play up the middle."
In the Marist Sectional semifinals, RBHS defeated Shepard 10-4. Trailing 1-0 early, the Bulldogs responded with 10 unanswered runs. Standout catcher Emily Noel capped off the scoring spree with a three-run homer that traveled an estimated 250 feet.
"Emily hit a bomb. That was one of the hardest hit balls I've ever seen," Schultz said. "I think we were a little nervous the first couple of innings. Nadia calmed down in the pitcher's circle and once we found our groove on offense, we were fine."
The Bulldogs had one of the best seasons in program history.
RBHS finished with a 27-5 record, earned second in the Metro Suburban Conference and won a regional championship. RBHS also notched notable wins over Oak Park and River Forest, St. Francis, Lyons Township and swept York in a doubleheader.
"It was the best year I've had, but not just record-wise," Schultz said. "The girls were truly amazing. It sounds cliché, but the group worked so hard and always wanted to improve. They weren't satisfied with being good; they wanted to be great."
In addition to success on the field, the coaches and players genuinely enjoyed each other's company.
"We are all so close," junior Abby Favela said. "We had so many great memories this season. The team brunches we had before playoff games are some of my favorites. It felt like more than a softball team, it felt like a family."
Although the RBHS loses Ngo, Lynch, Lauren Lambros and two other seniors to graduation, the bulk of the lineup returns next spring. Led by Noel (.431 batting average, 12 HR, 50 RBIs), Ranieri (.516, .613 on-base percentage) and Isabella Garcia (.353, 6 HR, 29 RBIs), nine contributing players return next spring as the Bulldogs figure to contend again in conference and the postseason.