In the tense final inning of a sectional championship and wearing complete catching gear, New Berlin Eisenhower sophomore Ali Nowak was in a surprising mood.
"I couldn't stop smiling," Nowak said.
The reason was simple: Her team was reaching its destination of Eighth and State.
After clinching an eighth consecutive conference title last month, the Lions added the other half of the intersection Thursday evening, hanging on to beat Waupun, 4-3, in the WIAA Division 2 sectional final at Chilton High School to earn their first state tournament berth since the 2008 Division 2 state championship.
Eisenhower (23-7) will face fellow sectional third seed New London at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Division 2 state semifinals at Madison's Goodman Diamond. New London beat Wrightstown, 7-2, to win the Freedom sectional.
Lions coach Jeff Setz was also among those smiling. After all, his team had supplied him with four runs in the first inning against Waupun, followed by a third inning where he learned of the birth of his first grandchild – a girl – and then a one-two-three final inning to clinch a state berth.
"We like to set our goals high, and I told our first parents meeting this year that we wanted to reach the intersection of Eighth and State," said Setz, whose team was ranked eighth – there's that number again – in the final Wisconsin Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association Division 2 poll. "But we're not done yet. Now that we've reached our goals, we want to see if we can rise up and do something more."
The four-run first was sparked by Nowak's leadoff single, a Warriors error, a walk and Riley Rossbach's bases-clearing triple against Waupun's 22-game winner Tiffany Killam. The early outburst gave Lions starting pitcher Katie Schlegel a cushion that allowed her to relax and concentrate on pounding the strike zone.
"I was just taking it pitch by pitch," said Schlegel, who was on the sideline in mid-May with a thigh injury, coinciding with the Lions' four-game losing streak.
Focusing on each pitch was especially important in the top of the fifth inning, when Waupun (26-4) loaded the bases on a pair of Eisenhower errors before Schlegel got a strikeout to end the inning. In the sixth, however, the Warriors got three runs on three hits against a tiring Schlegel, who was approaching 120 pitches.
"That was one of our goals," Waupun coach Tom Hagstrom said. "We like to take pitches and have some good places to put them and, well, make their pitcher work to get the outs. We've been doing that all season long, and we've been able to get to a lot of pitchers that way."
Setz brought in standout shortstop Steffi Lombardo, who had not pitched for nearly two seasons prior to Schlegel's injury. Lombardo got a strikeout and a weak grounder back to the pitcher to end the threat in the sixth. She then followed it with a four-pitch, one-two-three seventh inning to send the Lions into a joyous screaming fit as they clinched the state tournament berth.
"I was pretty pumped after we got that first out right away (in the seventh)," said Nowak, explaining her grins against the nervousness of the final inning. There were also her three hits, maintaining the hot streak she's been riding since moving from fourth in the order to the leadoff spot and raising her batting average to over .500.
"We had a destiny called Eighth and State," she said. "We had a confidence all year that we could do it, and now we're there."
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