MARENGO Marengo softball coach Dwain Nance doesn't usually let his players swing away when they're ahead 3-0 in a count.
But during Wednesday's Class 3A Marengo Sectional semifinal against Belvidere, Nance sensed that freshman pitcher Mariah Dionne could use a boost both at the plate and in the circle. Dionne swung at a 3-0 pitch from Belvidere starting pitcher Madison Gibbons for a two-run homer that landed over the center-field fence, breaking the scoreless tie in the fourth inning.
Dionne's homer was one of three Marengo hits in the game, including two by senior first baseman Abby Kissack. Kissack's grand slam broke the game open for the Indians in a six-run sixth en route to a 9-1 win for the Indians.
Marengo (28-10) will play Sterling at 11 a.m. in Saturday's championship game. This marks the third consecutive season the teams have met in a sectional final, with Marengo winning in 2012 and Sterling taking the title in 2013.
"It helped me calm my nerves just to know we were on the board and the other team wasn't, and we got the head start," Dionne said of her homer. "I feel like I've shown [Nance] enough that I can hit a 3-0 pitch and I know that the other pitcher has to come back with something really well that I know I can do it."
Nance said he could tell Dionne's homer calmed her down pitching-wise, and it showed with hitting her spots better and moving her pitches. Dionne scattered three hits over seven innings. Belvidere's lone run came on a homer from Teagan Toft in the bottom of the fourth to make it a 2-1 game. Dionne finished with nine strikeouts and two walks.
"I'm glad for our girls," Nance said. "They didn't get frustrated. They didn't get down on themselves. That's them, that's our kids. They know what to expect this time of year. They're just plugging away."
Kissack's solo homer in the fifth extended the Indians' lead to 3-1. But it was their offensive effort in the sixth that put away the Bucs (19-9).
Taylor Carlson started the inning with a single and stolen base. After a pop out, the Bucs dropped a fly ball that put runners on the corners. Allison Jasinski delivered an RBI double, and Leah Secor put down a perfect suicide squeeze bunt to score another run for a 5-1 lead.
Jessica Turner's infield single loaded the bases with one out, and Kissack came through with the clutch hit. Kissack hit a towering home run over the center-field wall, which capped a six-run sixth to put Marengo ahead 9-1. Kissack finished 3 for 4 with five RBIs.
More importantly, the big win sets up the big showdown with Sterling on Saturday.
"Usually, you can feel it when you do it so I pretty much knew they were far," Kissack said of her homers. "We've been really good on defense lately so we wanted to make sure we were solid there and not let them get any hits."