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Notre Dame softball players walk-off to state
ST. LOUIS -- Last season's heartbreak only sweetened the joy Saturday.
Notre Dame junior Ashton Elfrink roped a single into right field past a lunging Lutheran South second baseman to drive in the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning and send the Bulldogs back to the Class 3 final four for the fourth consecutive year with their 3-2 win.
"I didn't come through last year and I knew how that felt," she said. "I let the team down. I really wanted to be the hero today."
Courtesy runner Connor Elfrink raced around to score from second base without a throw as the Bulldogs streamed from the dugout and mobbed Ashton Elfrink while jumping up and down in pure delight after their quarterfinal victory.
"She is a really good player and comes through in key situations," Notre Dame junior Summer Burger said about Ashton Elfrink. "As soon as that hit got through, I was screaming and running out of the dugout to congratulate everybody. It was just awesome."
Notre Dame coach Jeff Graviett used Ashton Elfrink as a pinch hitter with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning of last year's Class 3 District 1 title game against Perryville. The Bulldogs trailed by a run at the time, and Elfrink struck out for the second out of the inning. Notre Dame ended up winning the game on a two-out, two-run error.
"She took a lot of emotions up to the plate with her and it was probably the wrong decision at that point," Graviett said about Elfrink's at-bat last season. "She probably wasn't prepared for that last year. But you never know if that one at-bat calmed her nerves enough because this is a couple of big hits in the postseason that she's gotten for us. When you have that much confidence in your No. 8 hitter to come through, that's a nice feeling to have as a coach."
Ashton Elfrink battled butterflies and managed to foul off a pitch with two strikes to keep her at-bat alive Saturday. She didn't miss on the next 2-2 offering, and with Connor Elfrink running on the play, there was no doubt the single was the game-winner.
"I was just looking to come through for my team," Ashton Elfrink said. "I knew that if I didn't get a hit that we could still come out and play defense and score again. But I knew I could do it because I've been put in the situation before this year."
The seventh-inning rally started when Katie Bond deposited the first pitch she saw into left field.
"The first two times I went up to bat, she threw one right down the middle," Bond said. "I knew the first one would be coming close so I took it."
Bulldogs catcher Savanna Ayers gave Bond, the Bulldogs' ace, a little pep talk before Bond stepped to the plate in the seventh inning. The encouragement worked.
"She just told me that this is what we've worked for all season and we just need to go out and play our game like we normally do and hit like I normally do and get on base or hit one over the fence," Bond said.
Ashton Elfrink's defense helped put her in position to win the game. Lutheran South struck first when pitcher Kallie Federhofer singled to right field to drive in the game's first run and give the Lancers runners on first and second with one out in the fourth inning. Kate Keaton ripped a shot that looked destined for right field, but Elfrink leapt to make the catch and fired to second for a double play to end the inning.
"If that play gets by her, that double-play ball, it goes to the wall and it's two runs," Graviett said. "She stepped up huge for us today and I couldn't be more proud of her."
The Bulldogs answered immediately after Elfrink's double play. Burger smacked a ball past the right fielder that rolled to the wall. The lightning-quick Burger never stopped, especially when the throw back to the infield was less than perfect, and scored standing up to even the score.
"I think it was really big because we never really get down on ourselves because we know if they score first, we still have to score to win," Burger said. "It was big to get up there and make the score even again."
The Bulldogs (29-2) pulled ahead in the fifth inning after Hali Rendleman led off with a bunt single and used her speed to motor around to third on Ashton Elfrink's sacrifice bunt. The Lancers tried to get Rendleman at third on the play, but the throw from first base got away and Rendleman scampered home.
The Bulldogs will make their fourth consecutive trip to the final four. But only four of the Bulldogs' starters in Saturday's game started in last season's state title game. Graviett said his team refused to let nerves creep in before Saturday's quarterfinal game.
"That's the one thing with the level they play at in the summer time and the experience," he said. "You look back at Katie Bond warming up in the championship game last year when Lauren [Reinagel] took the ball off her finger. They've been put in spots. That pressure gets hot. Once you feel it one time, sometimes you learn to deal with it. This group is as good as any I've had with that, especially with the turnover we've had. [This group] has done a tremendous job handling that all year."
The Bulldogs will face Nevada (21-5), a 3-1 winner over Reeds Spring, in Friday's 10 a.m. state semifinal at the Killian Softball Complex in Springfield, Mo.
"It's the greatest feeling knowing that we worked so hard for this, not just from the beginning of school, but the whole summer," Burger said.
WP -- Katie Bond. LP -- Kallie Federhofer. 3B -- Summer Burger (ND). 2B -- Brooke Tiehes (LS). Multiple hits -- Lutheran South: Carol Baker 2-3. Records -- Notre Dame 29-2.