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MONTICELLO — She almost always takes the first pitch for either a ball or a strike, hardly ever swinging at the first one she sees.
That’s been the modus operandi for Brianna Tatar, and it’s usually served Rantoul softball’s senior catcher very well. But something clicked for Tatar last Tuesday as she watched Monticello pitcher Taylor Wunderlich warm up.
Wunderlich replaced Sages starter Leslie Taylor after the Eagles put runners on first and second base, while trailing 6-4 in the top of the sixth inning with Tatar due up.
The Eagles’ power-hitting backstop watched with a keen eye as Wunderlich tossed her warm-up pitches, getting the timing down, and she knew this was one of those times she was going to break her rule.
“The first pitch is usually my pitch (that I take). I always take it and a lot of times have one strike on the board,” Tatar said. “When I was watching her, it was just the perfect speed for me, and as soon as it came in, I just knew to swing and hit it. And my dad just kept saying, ‘Use your hips. Use your hips.’ I just used everything and just hit it.”
Tatar smacked the outside fastball the opposite way to right-center field for a go-ahead three-run home run that eventually led to an 8-6 win over Monticello in an Okaw Valley Conference game on the road.
“I just ran. I didn’t think it was going to be out,” Tatar said. “It was outside, and I’m really bad on outside pitches. I’ve been trying to practice on them as much as I can.”
“The whole time I was just wanting her to get in that box and hit,” Rantoul coach Travis Flesner said of his mindset prior to the home run. “The umpire was making the changes going dugout-to-dugout, and I was watching the girl warm up and was like, ‘This is Bri’s perfect speed right here.’ She throws relatively hard, but she’s going to be right around the plate. Just throw her a strike on the first pitch, and sure enough she did. And Bri ripped it, and the rest is history there. She’s done a really good job of hitting the ball down. Her first two at-bats she hit a hard line drive and a hard ground ball. She made just a slight adjustment and hit it hard enough to carry it over the fence.”
Tatar is one of the area leaders in home runs with six, and she has now belted two go-ahead homers in the sixth inning, with the first coming in a 5-4 win over Fisher earlier in the season.
She said the one over the Bunnies was a bigger one because the win over a rival was just a bit sweeter.
The Eagles were able to outlast the Sages (5-9-1) despite a key error early in the game — a bobble by the shortstop with one out that led to the inning spiraling a bit out of control with Monticello grabbing four runs. Rantoul battled back, though, to clinch the OVC contest. Lindsay Jordahl added nine strikeouts from the pitcher’s circle.
“All the conference games are important between Unity, Monticello and St. Joe. Everybody knows you’re going to give your best effort,” Flesner said. “(Monticello) proved that here. They got beaten handily by Fisher 10-2 (last) Monday then came back and hit the ball hard and played pretty good defense.”
The win over Monticello gave the Eagles some momentum heading into a huge Thursday showdown against another OVC opponent, Unity, which was then-ranked No. 6 in The News-Gazette top 10 area rankings to the Eagles’ No. 8 listing.
All of the Eagles’ five losses this season were to teams either ranked in the Illinois Coaches Association top 20 or were receiving votes. And in three of those losses, Rantoul was not competitive after getting down early.
“After we get down and someone makes an error, or I make an error, we get down. And we can’t do that,” Tatar said following the Monticello game. “We’ve just got to keep working on the positives.”
“When we lost to (Maroa-Forsyth earlier in the year), Coach Flesner called me in, and I told him, ‘This is kind of good that we lost to Maroa because we’re going into a good game with Fisher and we need to play hard with them. They’re going to come in and play hard and think they’re going to win. So we need to go in thinking we’re going to win,’” Tatar said. “After we beat them, I think our confidence is finally up again, and we’re doing well. I think we’re going to go into the Unity game strong thinking we can beat them.”
Tatar and her team’s confidence channeled itself into a big-time performance at Wabash Park on Thursday.
After the Eagles came back to tie the game at 4-4 and later 5-5, Jordahl got aboard with a walk in the bottom of the seventh.
Hannah Shepherd then provided a key sacrifice bunt to move Jordahl to second.
“I told Hannah to be selective on her bunt,” Flesner said. “She tried on the third pitch and got it down on the fourth. If she tries on that first one, maybe she pops it up or steps on the plate and she’s out, but she did a great job doing that. That’s why she got the game ball (Thursday) because of her efforts like that. She had a couple sacrifice bunts and also had a base hit to kind of get things rolling. We look for the small things. … A lot of the things Hannah did (Thursday) were super important. She rose to the occasion.”
Freshman Lexi Sherrick finished off the game by belting a walk-off hit over the left fielder’s shoulder to send the Eagles to a thrilling 6-5 victory.
“We might’ve started off a little slow, but I thought we started to kick it in when we started scoring in the third inning,” Sherrick said. “I think this win gives us a lot more confidence going into games against better, bigger teams like St. Joe and those types of teams. It gives us a lot more confidence when we play (like this).”
After the Rockets gathered a one-run lead in the first, they tallied another three scores in the third for a 4-0 advantage.
But in typical Rantoul fashion, the Eagles chipped away at the lead with small ball, battling back after making some mistakes and trailing early. In a couple games this year, Rantoul has fought back, but not against a team with the talent of Unity.
An infield single, a chopper between the third baseman and shortstop, and another single loaded the bases for Rantoul in the bottom of the third.
Mackenzie Taticek bounced a short hit down the first base line. Unity’s first baseman scooped the ball up and missed the tag before overthrowing the ball to the plate.
The misplay allowed a pair of runs to score, and an RBI groundout and Shepherd’s single past the shortstop knotted the score at 4-4.
“We did not play lethargic. We gave up some hits, and (Unity) played well, but we kept our shoulders up and did not hang our shoulders for the first time since we got down. And that’s probably what kept us within striking distance and brought us to that big inning with four runs,” Flesner said. “We could’ve easily folded, but we kept our heads up, kept plugging away, and good things started to happen.”
After another Eagles mistake led to a 5-4 Rockets lead, Flesner’s group came back the next inning to tie it again.
Jordahl reached second, Shepherd laid down a sacrifice bunt, and Sherrick pulled a hard-hit single to left field for the game-tying run.
With one out in the top of the seventh, the left fielder Taticek dove for a ball in foul territory, nearly making a sensational catch. Three pitches later, the senior sprinted back towards the fence on a fly ball and made a critical catch for the second out — the dust exploding off her glove from the previous attempt as she ran into the fence.
“That was huge,” Flesner said. “Her first inning, she got beat deep, and after that she started reading the ball a lot better. Once she reads it, she’s going to catch it when she gets her glove on it.”
Rantoul (12-5) defeated Urbana 12-8 on Monday behind Tatar’s seventh HR of the season and four RBI from the senior.
Contact Zack Carpenter at email@example.com and on Twitter @ZCarp11.