COLUMBIA — The Rockers, a local little league softball team, watched Columbia College warm up from the bleachers an hour before the Cougars' game against Benedictine University-Springfield.
The little girls giggled and ate beef jerky. The Cougars huddled up and danced. But when a ball rolled over to Columbia catcher Taylor Atwood from Benedictine's side of the field, her demeanor changed. She coldly flicked it back.
Columbia and Benedictine split their doubleheader Friday to set up the rubber match of the American Midwest Conference Postseason Tournament quarterfinals on Saturday afternoon at Antimi Black Field.
The Cougars knew what they had to do.
"I think it was our spirit," said Columbia coach Wendy Spratt. "The team, they weren't gonna go down. They weren't gonna let them get us."
And it took eight innings to do it.
Lauren McCroskie pitched all eight innings for the Cougars and retired the first six batters she faced. The first hit she gave up was a solo home run by Benedictine's Miranda Langen in the top of the third inning. Benedictine scored again in the top of the sixth inning to go up 2-0.
Columbia struggled to generate much offense against Benedictine starting pitcher Katie Stapleton, who pitched a complete game.
It wasn't until the bottom of the sixth inning that the Cougars answered with a two-run home run from Carly Spalding.
Another little league softball team, the Gold Thunder, looked on from behind the plate. "This is so cool," they squealed in unison.
The Cougars came back to beat Benedictine 3-2 with a walk-off single from Atwood in the bottom of the eighth inning.
"I didn't do anything," Spratt said. "They did it. It was great leadership from everyone today."
With the victory, Columbia, the No. 2 seed in the AMC Tournament, improved to 28-14 overall. The Cougars also clinched a berth in the final four of the tournament, which begins May 1.
Despite his team's heartbreaking loss, Benedictine coach Kerry Crum admired the Cougars. After the game, he jogged across the diamond to where the Cougars were huddled in left field and told them he thought they were a great team.
Crum told the Cougars he loved watching them warm up and the way they approached the game. Before he jogged back to his own dugout, he said he would be rooting for Columbia the rest of the way.
Spratt's expectations for her team going forward are the same as they have always been.
"Play your best ball of the season," Spratt said. "Every time you step up for every pitch. That's been our approach all year long. We did a lot of mental toughness training in the offseason, and I think it's made a huge difference in how we approach the game and what we expect of each other.
"Moving forward, we expect to put our best effort forth every game."
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.