PEKIN — Having been born in early June, Ellie Ledger has been able to celebrate her birthday on a softball diamond with her Pekin teammates throughout each of the past four summers.
Thursday night, however, meant a little bit more. Ledger got the celebrate her 18th birthday at home with a Southeast Iowa Superconference north division win over Mediapolis as the Panthers serenaded the senior first baseman with “Happy Birthday” after Zoey Wright’s RBI groundout plated Sami Greiner with the game-ending run.
Being a senior, it was the last time Ledger will celebrate her birthday as a part of the Pekin softball program. By next summer, Ledger will celebrate her 19th birthday after completing her freshman year of college while the Panthers will be in the midst of a brand new season.
“Being my 18th birthday and knowing that I’m going to be leaving the team after this season is over, it made this one a little more special,” Ledger said. “It was a little more sentimental, but there’s always extra motivation to play well. No one wants to lose on their birthday.”
Wright, who is Ledger’s lone senior teammate, provided the first gift to the birthday girl on the diamond delivering a two-out solo home run in the bottom of the first that put Pekin up 1-0. Wright, like Ledger, also embraced the meaning of playing on the diamond at the age of 18.
“Turning 18 is just one more of those last moments you get to share with your teammates,” Wright said. “It’s one more reminder that you’re almost coming to the end of your time in high school. It’s one of the last times Ellie or I are going to be on this field and we want to make the most of our last season.”
Wright’s homer kicked off a three-run rally in the opening inning that included the first of two runs Ledger would score in the win. Erika Coleman added the first of her three hits after making a diving catch at second base to end the top of the first as Pekin staked junior pitcher Cari Duwa to an early 3-0 lead.
“My teammates really helped me out,” Ledger said. “It was a good game. Everyone played really well. Cari pitched really well, as did Faith (Goudy) when she came in.”
Duwa picked up her first win in the pitching circle this season, striking out nine batters while allowing no earned runs on three hits over four innings. Goudy bounced back after allowing a pair of runs in the fifth to set down Mediapolis (0-8, 0-6 SEI north) in the sixth, setting the table for Pekin to wrap up a 10-run win in the bottom of the frame.
“The thing I’ve noticed right away about these girls is they don’t give up,” said Shelby Blakely after winning her third game as head coach of the Pekin softball team. “From the first game of the season (at Van Buren) I knew that. We were in dogfight. We scored right away. Van Buren came back and scored some on us. When the fifth inning came around, we rallied from about four or five runs down to get the lead back.
“We never gave up. Our record doesn’t reflect the type of team that we are. We’ve played some really good teams, been close to beating some of those teams and we’ve proven that, the next time around, we’re right there and will have a chance to win those games later in the season.”
Pekin has already started to turn the corner after losing five straight games to open the year. Thursday’s win was the third in the past four games for the Panthers. Only Louisa-Muscatine, the defending Class 2A state champions, has been able to get the better of Blakely’s squad since Pekin secured its first win last Friday with a 20-3 triumph over IMS.
“Getting that first win really changed the momentum for us,” Wright said. “We know we’re a better team than our record indicates. I think we’re finding the right situations to put ourselves in. Hopefully, that can continue to carry over into the rest of the season.”
Pekin (3-6, 3-3 SEI north) returns to the Fairfield Tournament today with three games in two days to be played in Jefferson County, starting with a quarterfinal contest against Chariton at 4 p.m. Two years ago, Pekin evened its record after a slow start by winning three games and the tournament title at Fairfield, something the Panthers believe can happen again this weekend.
“We were definitely not expected to win that tournament title two years ago, but walking away with it made us feel good and helped us play better throughout the rest of that season,” Wright said. “I think we have the same opportunity in front of us. If we start out well on Friday, we can carry some momentum into Saturday.”
Scott Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.