FAIRFIELD — For 20 of 21 innings over two days, the Pekin High School softball team did everything right that could have made it worthy of being Fairfield Invitational champions.
It was one inning in the championship against Clear Creek-Amana that kept the Panthers from the title.
The Clippers scored four two-out, unearned runs in the second inning and were aided by two errors in the inning in posting a 5-0 victory over the Panthers in the championship game Saturday, denying Pekin its second championship in three years while also winning the tournament for the first time.
"We preach good defense, and we'd been playing it pretty well. But we let it slip away that inning," Pekin coach Shelby Blakely said. "Clear Creek hit a lot up the middle, which hadn't happened to us much, and they have good hitters. But in a game like this, two errors are still too many."
The Panthers had a big opportunity to strike first, as Emilee Linder led off the game with a double. But she was stranded at third, and the Panthers were limited to just four hits the rest of the way.
When the Clippers had their opening, they ran with it. Pekin pitcher Cari Duwa retired the first two hitters of the second, but a misplayed ground ball on the infield started the rally. Karsyn Stratton's two-run single and Abby Crow's RBI double made it a 4-0 game.
Clear Creek-Amana threatened in every inning after, eventually scoring another run in the sixth on an RBI single by Ainsley Schrock. That run also came with two outs.
"We were caught flat-footed defensively," Blakely said. "And that played right into their hands."
The Panthers couldn't have looked better than they did in the semifinals against New London in a 4-1 victory. They took a 2-0 lead on an RBI fielder's choice by Sami Greiner in the second and RBI single by Faith Goudy in the third, which started after Ellie Ledger reached base on a dropped third strike.
Goudy and Kylie Davis did the rest, shutting down a potent New London lineup on just five hits. The Panthers scored two more runs in the sixth for a comfortable lead, but Kara Kreiger's solo home run in the seventh was the Tigers' only run.
"Faith has a fantastic drop ball, and when it's on, she's really tough to hit," Blakely said. "We had some lights-out defense, particularly Alli Bainbridge at shortstop. We're going to see this team again, so you don't want to show them all your cards."
Despite not winning the tournament, Blakely was pleased that her team was able to find itself during a grueling week.
"We had an outstanding week in going 4-2," she said. "The wins are starting to come for us."
Both Van Buren and Fairfield recovered from seventh-inning losses on the opening day of the tournament to face each other for fifth place. The Trojans won 8-0, but it was anyone's game until Fairfield's five-run seventh inning. Fairfield took advantage of Van Buren errors in the fifth, then managed six hits in the seventh inning as Destiny Gridley's two-out, two-run double broke the game open.
All five runs scored with two outs.
"Van Buren has a good team. Their top four or five players all swing the bats well," Fairfield coach Bob Bradfield said. "I was a little nervous because all it would have taken for them was a big hit here or there. This could have been an 8-7 game."
Indeed, the Warriors left runners at second and third in the first, fourth and seventh innings but couldn't break through as Fairfield pitchers Allison Rebling and Coty Engle dodged jams.
It was Van Buren's fourth game in two days.
"I think that took a lot out of us, but Fairfield has some smart kids at the top of their lineup," Van Buren coach Randy Smith said. "Our defense was good until that last inning. We just couldn't score any runs."
Van Buren defeated Winfield-Mount Union 11-3 in the first consolation game Saturday, while Fairfield defeated Chariton 13-1 to create the fifth-place matchup.
Chad Drury can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @ChadDrury