RUNS AND RUNDOWNS: Southwestern’s Megan Ralston (below, left) laughs after smacking an RBI single in the fourth inning and the Rebels’ Austin Courtney (above, right) chases after South Ripley’s Emily Cumberworth in a rundown in the third. Southwestern won its sectional opener 5-2 on Monday. (Staff photos by Mark Campbell)
RUNS AND RUNDOWNS: Southwestern’s Megan Ralston (below, left) laughs after smacking an RBI single in the fourth inning and the Rebels’ Austin Courtney (above, right) chases after South Ripley’s Emily Cumberworth in a rundown in the third. Southwestern won its sectional opener 5-2 on Monday. (Staff photos by Mark Campbell)
Southwestern battled it out with conference rival South Ripley on Monday to do something coach Duane Ralston's current group of seniors had never done - win a sectional game and start what the Rebels hope will be a postseason run.

How do Ralston and the Rebels spell relief? Southwestern 5, South Ripley 2.

"In a sectional game everything is a little harder," Ralston said. "You think a little harder on every pitch, every runner that gets on you think a little harder about what you're going to do here. It's a lot of pressure.

"I put a lot of pressure on my seniors this year," Ralston said of his six upperclassmen. "I told them this is the year you need to step up. You've been here four years and you haven't had a sectional victory and this is the one where you need to do it.

"I was talking about winning the first game! But we've kind of got the monkey off our back now - in the past it seemed like we couldn't get past this first game - so we want to keep winning," he added. "This win will be a relief to us. It's a relief to them going into tomorrow whoever we face and then we'll just take it one game at a time."

But with that pressure came a few mistakes and enough of those piled up in the third inning to put the Rebels in their worst jam of the game.

The teams had traded runs in the first inning and Southwestern saw a potential go-ahead run erased in the second when Kaitlyn Conover was gunned down at home.

South Ripley then tacked on another run in the third to jump ahead 2-1when a throwing error put leadoff batter Emily Cumberworth on and a single up the middle by Laken Farrell moved Cumberworth to third but nailed Farrell at second trying to advance on the throw to third.

Southwestern looked like it was going to snuff the South Ripley rally in its tracks when Allie Sexton's bunt hung Cumberworth out between third and home. But while the Rebels were chasing and ultimately tagging out Cumberworth for the second out, Sexton kept working her way around the bases until she too was caught in a rundown between second and third for what would have been the third out.

But rather than capping the double play with the second rundown, a throw by Southwestern's Austin Courtney sailed into an empty outfield allowing Sexton to score and give the Raiders a 2-1 lead.

"We've made some outstanding plays like that where we've gotten double plays and caught people in rundowns and things like that," Ralston said. "I don't know if they're just so used to being able to throw the ball around or what but this time it kind of got away from us.

"That's happened a few times but I told my third baseman that I want you to be that way and I want you to be aggressive," the coach added. "In this case we maybe need to hold the ball, but I'll never try to slow them down in that situation because that's not been our problem all year.

"If you look at that play, the reason there was nobody in the outfield is because everybody was where they were supposed to be - backing up the infielders on the bases who were involved in the rundown and that's all I can ask. I mean, the ball's not supposed to go out there but other than that ..."

With Sexton and Southwestern's Kelsi Brierly engaged in somewhat of a pitcher duel at the time, the run loomed large. Ralston noted more importantly, however, that Southwestern didn't let the miscue overshadow what the Rebels were trying to accomplish overall.

"Nobody got down," Ralston said. "That's the thing about the last I'd say at least three weeks, we've had some tough games and we've lost to some tough teams but nobody gets down if we make a mistake. We talked about that on the way up here: Come positive, come fired up and if something goes wrong move on."

And move on the Rebels did. After getting out of the third inning without further damage, Southwestern bounced right back to score four runs in the top of the fourth and take what would prove to be an insurmountable lead in the tourney opener thanks to a two-out rally that began with a walk by senior Shaye Geer and included a single to left by Courtney, an RBI single up the middle by freshman Megan Ralston, a two-run double by the freshman Brierly and ended when Ralston scored on a wild pitch to her twin sister Brittany Ralston.

"The team fought back and Kelsi's a great pitcher," coach Ralston said. "I'm pretty confident in her and that most games were going to keep it to a two-run game so if we can go out and score three we ought to be in pretty good shape.

Coach Ralston said the keys were Brierly's pitching and the Rebels' overall playmaking on defense and aggresive running and hitting on offense. He lamented the fact that Southwestern still sometimes falls a hit shy of breaking a game wide open but noted that so far the combination is working.

"We try to put a lot of pressure on the defense," he said. "If we could just get the big hit - if we could ever be the hitting team that I know we can be - we'd be scary."

Ralston's glad to get what he hopes will be an ice-breaking win in the opener. The Rebels now face conference and sectional nemesis Switzerland County - the host team - today and the winner of that game will face today's winner of the North Decatur-Milan matchup in Wednesday's championship.

"We've played Switz. three times so we're pretty familiar with them," Ralston said. "They've got a sophomore pitcher whose done pretty good against us but we've managed to win so we're not scared."

In fact, at this point Southwestern respects everyone in the tourney but is afraid of no one.

"I think it's ours to lose," Ralston said. "I really think we're the team to beat in the tournament. I'm sure Milan has a lot of confidence after they beat us the second time around but I think were the team to beat.

"I don't want to be overconfident but I believe in my team and I know what we have," he added. "We've stepped up many times against good teams and I think if we can put it all together we'll be there."