WOOD RIVER — The advantage has swung Mount Olive’s way in the chase for the Prairie State Conference softball championship.
The Wildcats moved closer to the league title by blanking host East Alton-Wood River, 4-0 on Friday. While the Oilers fell to 15-18 overall and finished their conference play at 4-1, the Wildcats improved to 13-8 and 3-0. They have PSC games remaining against Marquette Catholic and Bunker Hill.
“It was a big win for us today because we knew what was at stake,” Mount Olive coach Brian Kernich said. “We came out with great focus.”
The Wildcats built a 2-0 lead by the second inning and never looked back. The Oilers couldn’t mount any offense in attempting to secure their first conference softball championship.
“We didn’t hit the ball Thursday against Metro East Lutheran,” EA-WR coach Dana Emerick said, referring to a 3-1 win. “And our slump continued tonight. We are in a funk.”
Sophomore left-hander Rachael Kernich, daughter of the coach, frustrated the Oilers on Senior Day. Kernich permitted 4 hits, struck out 6, walked none and retired a dozen batters on pop ups or fly balls. EA-WR only had two ground-ball outs. The Oilers lost another runner stealing.
“We put zero pressure on them defensively,” Emerick said. “You have to hit the ball on the ground sometime to force them to make the plays defensively.”
Emme Flanigan and Heather Martin stroked doubles for the Oilers, while Peyton Young and Courtney Beneke supplied singles. Flanigan doubled to lead off the second, but was stranded there,
“We’re trying to make adjustments and find something that works,” Emerick said of the Oilers’ lack of hitting lately. “When things aren’t working, you can go into a slump.”
He also credited Mount Olive for meeting the challenge in a conference championship game-type setting.
“They had good pitching and made the plays,” he said. “For some reason, we keep running into the other team’s best game all the time.”
Junior shortstop Jill Niehaus, who has verbally committed to SIUE, ignited the Wildcats’ attack. She was 3-for-3 with a pair of triples, including a RBI one in the first inning against EA-WR pitcher Morgan Moxey.
Mount Olive added an unearned run in the second and then scored twice in the fifth. Niehaus’ triple got the Wildcats going again. Madison Bollman contributed a run-scoring single and Lindsey Strohbeck logged a RBI on a bases-loaded walk. Moxey allowed 10 hits and 3 earned runs. She struck out 6 and walked 3.
“Rachael pitched well and our defense did a good job,” Kernich said. “Rachael is good at moving around her pitches.”
Junior catcher Courtney Kernich, also the coach’s daughter, went 1-for-4 and drove in a run. She’s a left-hander, just like her younger sister. Teammate Darrian Roberts were 2-for-4 and reached base 3 times. Niehaus was on base all four times, including a walk.
“She can really play,” coach Kernich said of Niehaus.
If the Wildcats win their final two conference games, they will clinch their first Prairie State title since 2014, when they finished 18-6. Mount Olive also competes in the 11-school MSM and is runner-up to Buffalo Tri-City.
The Oilers will await Class 2A Southwestern Regional play next week. EA-WR, seeded seventh, clashes with third-seeded Staunton in a 4:30 p.m. game Tuesday at Piasa. The regional opens Monday with Roxana meeting the host Piasa Birds at 4:30 p.m.
Dupo, the top-rated team at Southwestern, tangles with the Roxana-Southwestern survivor at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. The title game is set for 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 21, with the regional winner advancing to the Gillespie Sectional.
MOUNT OLIVE 4, EA-WR 0
Mount Olive 110 020 0 — 4 10 0
EA-WR 000 000 0 — 0 4 2
Mount Olive (13-8, 3-0) — Courtney Kernich 1-4 RBI, Rachael Kernich 1-4, Jill Niehaus 3-3 3B-2 RBI, Madison Bollman 1-3 RBI, Darrian Roberts 2-4, Zoe Murphy 1-3, Lindsey Strohbeck 0-1 RBI, MaKenzy Sorsen 1-4. WP — R. Kernich IP-7 H-4 R-0 BB-0 K-6
EA-WR (15-18, 4-1) — Peyton Young 1-3 Emme Flanigan 1-3 2B, Courtney Beneke 1-3, Heather Martin 1-3 2B. LP — Morgan Moxey IP-7 H-10 R-4 ER-3 BB-3 K-6