Carthage Softball team

The Carthage softball team poses Sunday after winning an NCAA Division III regional title at UW-Whitewater. The Reds advanced to super regionals for the first time in program history and will play Illinois Wesleyan on Friday and Saturday.

Carthage softball coach Amy Gillmore believed her team could win this weekend’s NCAA Division III Tournament regional at UW-Whitewater’s Van Steenderen Softball Diamond if it just played the way it’s capable of.

Boy, did it all come together for the Reds.

Finishing the weekend with a huge exclamation point, Carthage erupted for eight runs in the bottom of the fifth inning Sunday afternoon to polish off host school Whitewater, 9-0 — the game was called in the fifth due to the eight-run rule — to win the regional title and advance to super regionals for the first time in program history.

Carthage (29-14) needed just one win over Whitewater, which was ranked No. 23 in the latest NCAA Division III coaches poll, on Sunday in the double-elimination tournament after the Reds’ win over the Warhawks on Saturday.

Carthage slammed the door on Whitewater (28-14) to avoid having to play a second game Sunday.

“This is the farthest that our program has ever been, so obviously this is a huge win for our program and for our girls,” said Gillmore, in her 22nd season leading the team. “... We’re peaking at the right time.”

There’s no doubt about that, as Carthage — which got into the tournament with an at-large bid — did just about everything right over the weekend.

“We’re just playing as a team, as a whole together, right now,” Gillmore said. “It’s everybody picking everybody up right now, and it’s definitely at the right time.”

Guercio dominates

Stefanie Guercio was the only pitcher the Reds needed, as she improved to 21-4 this season. Named the MVP of the regional, Guercio went 3-0 and allowed one unearned run on a total of 12 hits with three walks and 17 strikeouts.

She struck out five Sunday to make it 229 on the season, breaking the program’s single-season record of 225 set by Krystina Leazer in 2013.

Carthage also blasted seven home runs over the weekend, including four Sunday. The Reds had hit just 11 homers entering the weekend.

“It’s just exciting to high-five them coming around third base,” Gillmore said of all the longballs.

Wesleyan up next

Now one of 16 teams left in the country, Carthage will face sixth-ranked Illinois Wesleyan in a best-of-3 super regional. The teams will play one game Friday and two Saturday, if necessary, with Sunday slated as a make-up day in the event of rain.

The winner advances to the final eight, where the national champion will be determined from May 23-28 at Suddenlink Field in Tyler, Texas.

Gillmore said the super regional will almost certainly be held at IWU’s campus in Bloomington, Ill., but the official word will come from the NCAA today.

The Titans (36-7) won the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title and hosted its regional, breezing through with a 3-0 record. Carthage went 1-3 against IWU this season — including two losses in the CCIW Tournament — and will again be the underdog, but the Reds also hadn’t defeated Whitewater since 1998 before beating the Warhawks twice in two days.

“They’ve been a nemesis for us, too,” Gillmore said of IWU. “We have some confidence going down there and playing them, too. It’s the next step, and hopefully we can go down there and keep rolling.”

The Reds certainly kept rolling Sunday.

Donna Stevens blasted a one-out homer to left-center in the bottom of the first to give Carthage a 1-0 lead, and Guercio kept Whitewater on lockdown until Carthage exploded in the fifth, sending 11 hitters to plate and scoring eight runs on six hits to end the game.

Big fifth inning

It started with Emmily Zinkiewicz’s lead-off homer to left-center, a big hit for a struggling hitter.

“She’s been struggling, so this was huge for her,” Gillmore said.

Carthage didn’t just settle for one insurance run.

Alex Millett doubled, Stevens singled and Naomi Alonzo walked to load the bases. Bradford graduate Ellie Bernero scored one run with a groundout to make it 3-0, then the Reds went on to end the game.

Freshman Kelsey Domagala, who homered twice in the regional, smacked a two-run double to right center, followed by Brooke Sefcik’s two-run homer to left for a 7-0 lead.

Carthage made its second out, but Rylee Johnson — who played at Central — walked, and Zinkiewicz cranked her second homer of the inning, a two-run shot to left that invoked the eight-run rule and sent the Reds to super regionals.

“All of the hard work that they do put in — with fall ball, with the offseason, with the regular season — all of it does pay off,” Gillmore said. “... This group just gets along so well. They don’t care who gets the credit, who’s doing what.

“It’s just been a great group to be around.”

In addition to Guercio, Domagala, Sefcik and Stevens were named to the All-Region team.

Mike Johnson