DU QUOIN — Names can change, and so can the talent level. But one thing Pinckneyville softball coach Alan Engelhardt didn’t want to change from his last two teams, which each reached the Class 2A semifinals, were the expectations.

“Nothing changes with our expectations,” he said, “and I think the kids agreed with that.”

On Monday, the Panthers took an important step towards meeting one important goal. Their 5-2 SIRR Mississippi win over Perry County rival Du Quoin gave them a two-game lead in the conference over the Indians, Carterville and Nashville.

Beat Anna-Jonesboro, Nashville and Carterville in its final three conference contests, and Pinckneyville (11-6, 6-1) clinches the title. It would not be an insignificant feat for a team that lost stars like Josie Gleason and ace pitcher Mariah Clark, last year’s Southern Illinoisan Player of the Year.

“I think a lot of people didn’t think we’d be as good this year,” senior pitcher Taylor Witges said, “but we can just prove them wrong.”

Witges did her part again to quash the nay-sayers with an efficient effort in the circle. Other than the fifth inning, when she allowed all four of Du Quoin’s hits and both of its runs, she was in total command. She permitted just three baserunners total in the other six innings, two via errors and one on a two-out walk in the seventh to Katie Smith.

Relying on a riser and screwball as her wipeout pitches, Witges recorded four strikeouts and fetched 10 outs via the air.

“I thought she did a good job of mixing her speeds in and out,” Indians coach Jason James said of Witges. “I thought we chased a lot of her high pitches, got ourselves in a hole, and then we’d take one down the middle. Kudos to her; she did a good job of coming out of the gate and going after us.”

Witges also produced a critical insurance run on her behalf in the sixth, tomahawking a 2-2 pitch from Chloe Hill up the middle for a single that scored Taylor Kurtz for the game’s last run. It was the last of 11 hits for the Panthers, who exerted almost continuous pressure on Hill.

The righthander needed 140 pitches to go the distance, pitching around traffic in every inning but the seventh. Engelhardt lauded his team’s aggressiveness at the plate. But they also did a good job of spitting on close pitches, driving Hill’s pitch count way up.

“We really focused on hitting her best pitch,” Witges said. “We had a lot of at-bats with a lot of spoils, so that was good. We tried to make her tired.”

Two-out production gave Pinckneyville an immediate working margin. Lauren Jackson laced a double over left fielder Chloe Hess in the first to score Kiya Hagene, and Megan Engelhardt added a two-strike RBI single up the middle for a 2-0 lead.

One inning later, Kurtz supplied the first of her three hits, lining a two-out RBI single to right-center that plated Kenzie Prest for a 3-0 advantage.

Hallie Waggoner upped the margin to 4-0 in the top of the fifth by ripping a run-scoring double to the fence in right-center. At that point, the Panthers had nine hits and Du Quoin (11-10, 4-3) had only two baserunners.

The Indians made their stand during their half of the fifth. Hess’ one-out single broke up Witges’ no-hit bid. Two more singles filled the bases, and Smith was grazed by a 3-1 pitch to force in the first run.

One out later, Abbi Mocaby lined an RBI single to left to make it 4-2. But Witges induced an inning-ending grounder to third from Morgan Bullar. Du Quoin only managed one more baserunner for the game’s remainder.

For Pinckneyville, it was another indication that it wants to fill high expectations, regardless of who wears the uniform.

“We were really ready to attack today,” Engelhardt said.

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