The Carthage softball team came so close.
Entering Saturday, the Reds needed just one win over Illinois Wesleyan in a best-of-3 super regional to advance to the NCAA Division III World Series for the first time in program history.
But there’s a reason the Titans won the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title, were ranked No. 6 in the latest NCAA Division III coaches poll and hosted the super regional in Bloomington, Ill.
After Carthage pushed Wesleyan to the brink with a 2-0 victory in Game 1 on Friday, IWU battled back with wins of 1-0 and 4-1 on Saturday to claim the series, 2-1, and advance to the eight-team World Series from May 23 through May 28 at Suddenlink Field in Tyler, Texas.
The Reds, who reached super regionals for the first time in program history after a memorable postseason run, finished with a 30-16 record.
“You’ve got to tip your hat (to IWU),” said Carthage coach Amy Gillmore, who concluded her 22nd and perhaps most memorable season leading the program.
“We knew after we won the game yesterday, we knew we had to battle. ... I’m extremely proud of our team. I think we played extremely well throughout the entire tournament. ... Pretty much every pitch, every defensive play, we played really well as a team.”
Of course, Gillmore couldn’t help but think about Saturday’s Game 1, when the Reds were just a 1-0 decision away from advancing to the World Series.
Carthage mustered just three hits off Wesleyan starter Ally Wiegand, and the Titans (38-8) scored their lone run in the top of the second on Hayley Earl’s one-out double to left that scored Brittany Murphy.
The Reds, batting as the home team, got a chance in the bottom of the seventh when Naomi Alonzo singled to right with one out.
Despite not necessarily scoring a lot, Carthage had gotten key hits all postseason, and a home run would’ve sent the Reds to the World Series. But Wiegand got Ellie Bernero to strike out and Kelsey Domagala to fly out to center and force a Game 3.
“It’s just hard when you’re just one step away, and a 1-0 game and you’re that close,” Gillmore said. “Any of those kids that were up in that inning, they could’ve popped it and it would’ve been a walk-off. ... But obviously, it was not meant to be.”
Guercio (22-5) took the tough-luck loss, allowing a run on six hits with no walks and six strikeouts in a complete-game effort.
The MVP in Carthage’s regional championship, Guercio — who pitched 32/3 innings of relief in Saturday’s second game — tossed a three-hitter Friday to record a program single-season record 10th shutout.
“I would put our pitcher up against almost all of Division III,” Gillmore said. “I would take her any day. ... People don’t always give her credit because she’s not a dominating speed pitcher, but the movement she’s got always keeps people off-balance.”
Carthage went to Bernero to start the second game, and the Titans got on the board with a run in the top of the first.
Carthage answered in the bottom of the frame to tie it at 1-1. Alexandra Millett led off with a single to right and advanced to second on a passed ball. Brooke Byas came on to run for Millett, the catcher, and scored on Donna Stevens’ double to right-center.
But IWU countered immediately in the top of the second with two runs on four hits off Bernero (2-5). Carthage also committed an error in the inning.
“We made a couple mistakes defensively, and they took advantage of it,” Gillmore said.
The game was delayed by rain in the fourth inning, then the Titans extended their lead to 4-1 in the top off the sixth off Guercio. Carthage, meanwhile, again couldn’t get to Wiegand, as she improved to 23-3 with four scoreless inning in relief of starter Brea Walker.
While Gillmore was understandably disappointed the Reds couldn’t get a win Saturday, she praised what they did late in the regular season and in the playoffs to make a run the program won’t forget.
“Very disappointing, but these kids have played their hearts out for me and for this team,” Gillmore said.