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College Softball: North Central forces winner-take-all Game 3 in super regional

An innocuous question came out of the North Central College postgame huddle.

“Can we just play right now?”

Nobody wants to see the Cardinals bats cool overnight.

In a stunning offensive onslaught, North Central’s first 11 batters of a 10-run fourth inning reached base and the Cardinals staved off elimination in Saturday’s NCAA Division III softball super regional series in a big way with a 12-2 five-inning win over St. Thomas at Shanower Family Field in Naperville.

St. Thomas, D-III’s 13th-ranked team hailing out of St. Paul, Minn., took the first game in the best-of-three series 7-6 in nine innings. The two teams meet in a winner-take-all at 11 a.m. Sunday morning, that winner advancing to the D-III National Championships May 22-27 in Tyler, Texas.

Winning pitcher Vlasta Mangia, one of only two North Central seniors, crushed a three-run homer in the fateful fourth and capped it off with an RBI single.

“That inning was awesome,” said Mangia, a Morton graduate. “Everyone came up ready to hit. We just attacked.”

Even Jim Kulawiak, who has seen some fair offense in his 26 years coaching at North Central, was wowed by the big inning.

Amanda Walker singled to start things with the Cardinals trailing 2-1, and Elk Grove native Andrea Starr singled in Walker. Later, Kiersten Tinkoff doubled in two runs and Starr singled in two in her second at-bat of the inning.

“Over the years, we’ve had some great hitting teams,” Kulawiak said, “but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that.”

North Central (33-12) was coming off winning its first regional championship since 2001, playing a St. Thomas team it beat 4-3 in March but that boasted a lineup averaging 7.7 runs with 49 homers on the year.

The Cardinals twice came back from multi-run deficits to nearly take the first game.

Trailing 4-0, North Central tied it in the fifth on two-run doubles by Kayla Antle and Walker. St. Thomas see-sawed back ahead 6-4, but with two outs in the top of the seventh, Plainfield Central product Carly Trenhaile sliced a clutch two-run double down the right-field line. Mangia then almost won it with a high drive caught at the fence.

“Our kids showed a lot of character and fighting spirit,” Kulawiak said.

Meg DuPuis’ bases-loaded single with one out in the ninth won it for St. Thomas (41-7) — and Tommies coach John Tschida felt fortunate to come out of Saturday still playing.

“We played poorly defensively, pitched really poorly and hit OK, and we came out with a split,” Tschida said. “That’s pretty good. We know we’re a much better team than this. Just turn the page. We threw it over the plate and their hitters did a real good job of being aggressive.”

Walker went 3-for-4 and Antle 2-for-3 in Game 1 for North Central. Taylor Ryan, a senior from Willowbrook, had two doubles and knocked in the first run of Game 2.

St. Thomas’ first three batters of Game 2 reached off Mangia, but she controlled the damage from there.

Needless to say, North Central’s all-time leader in wins and innings pitched is excited about playing postseason softball on a home field that the Cardinals have only lost twice on this spring.

“It’s such an advantage; we are so blessed to be able to play on our own field,” Mangia said. “This is our turf.”

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