CRYSTAL LAKE – Maybe it was the pregame bubble gum that Michelle O'Keefe's mother gave the Crystal Lake Central softball team, or maybe it was the loud, energetic music heard from the adjacent baseball field during warmups.
Whatever the cause, the Tigers played Thursday's Fox Valley Conference Fox Division final against Johnsburg with a focus and a passion that is usually reserved for playoff games.
The Tigers (17-6 overall, 11-1 FVC Fox) jumped out to an early lead in the first on a solo home run from pitcher Megan Mahaffy — who entered play Thursday hitting .623 — and never looked back in an 8-0 win that earned the Tigers a share of their first division or conference title since 1995.
Mahaffy struck out eight, walked none and allowed two hits in pitching a shutout.
"It's great for the girls," Central coach Brian Strombom said. "We were looking at this as a type of thing we were capable of, and we didn't have any room for error."
Central will share the FVC Fox title with Grayslake North. Each team won one game against the other during the regular season. The games were played on back-to-back days. The Tigers won the first game, 5-0, and Grayslake North won the second, 5-1.
That was the only loss for either team in the conference so winning out the rest of the season became something that the Tigers stressed.
"Most of us weren't even born yet," Mahaffy said of the last time Central won a conference title. "So it was a really big deal for us to be able to do this especially when we saw we could."
When last season's team fell just short of the division title with a 9-3 record, Strombom took a look at this year's team and wondered if this group of players would be able to take the next step.
The additions of O'Keefe and Maddie Helm solidified the defense and added some pop in the offense, and after a small rough patch during the beginning of the season, the Tigers began to play cohesively. They cut down on errors and started to drive the ball with runners in scoring position, and they were winning one-run games. It was looking up for the Tigers.
"I thought so, it was attainable," Strombom said of the division title. "It's certainly what I was wanting, though it took a little while to be totally right with the new roles, but it's good to achieve our goals."
At the end of the season the Tigers looked ahead and saw they would face the Skyhawks (9-15, 6-6) twice in two days. After a crucial split with Grayslake North, Central understood how tough it is to defeat a team twice in a row.
Johnsburg pitcher Kendall Huemann was in a zone Thursday in what was a must-win game for the Tigers. Aside from the Mahaffy home run in the first, Huemann didn't allow a ball out of the infield until midway through the fourth and continued to dominate afterward.
"She's been carrying the load for us and she's been incredible," Skyhawks coach Wally Warner said.
Added Strombom of Huemann: "She is a tough, gusty player and she keeps attacking the zone and fields her position and is pretty crafty."
The Tigers scored six runs in the fourth with the help of defensive miscues and timely hits to break the game open.