There were Earlham fans with tears in their eyes as they celebrated and waited to hug Taelor Williamson in the minutes following her heroic effort on the diamond at Mittera Field Thursday afternoon.
All eyes were on Williamson, but her strength and courage stretched well beyond the 204 or so feet that her walk-off solo home run traveled in second-ranked Earlham's emotional 3-2 victory over third-ranked Woodbury Central in a Class 2A semifinal at Rogers Park.
The Cardinals (30-4) will play for a state softball championship for the second time in three years - they were the 1A runner-up in 2012 - and Williamson's blast to straightaway center field off Woodbury Central pitcher Halle Still with no outs in the bottom of the seventh inning got them there.
—Photo by Troy Hyde, for The Messenger
Earlham’s Taelor Williamson hugs teammate Kaylie Brindley after Williamson hit a walk-off home run against Woodbury Central. Williamson was released from the hospital at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday morning.
That's a good enough story by itself. But Williamson's journey yesterday actually began close to 100 miles away in a hospital bed at Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines.
"Yeah, I actually got out of the hospital this morning," Williamson, a sophomore catcher, said while still beaming in the minutes after the victory. "I felt a little tired out there, I wasn't top notch, but I feel way better than I did (on Wednesday)."
Williamson lives with achalasia - a rare disorder of the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. It is characterized by enlargement of the esophagus, which impairs her ability to push food down toward the stomach.
Woodbury Central 2
Woodbury Central 000 000 2-2 1 3
Earlham 001 100 1-3 7 2
Halle Still and Erika Bates. Kaylie Brindley and Taelor Williamson. W-Brindley (19-2). L-Still (16-4). HR-EARL: Taylor Hipsley, Williamson. RBI-EARL: Hipsley, Williamson.
"Periodically she'll choke on her food in the night and that's what she did," Mindy Williamson, Taelor's mother, said. "Right now she has bacterial pneumonia and she's had it four times this year. She's a tough nugget."
Mom, you can say that again.
Williamson was admitted to Blank Children's Hospital at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, but she agreed to the overnight stay on one very important condition.
"I pretty much told them I have a game at 1 (on Thursday), so I have to be there," she said. "They were really good at Blank in letting me go and working to get me better."
"She begged her doctor to let her go," Mindy Williamson said. "She said, 'I'm walking out of here at 7:30 (yesterday morning)' and that's what she did."
Leading 2-0 heading into the top of the seventh, Earlham made several uncharacteristically shaky plays that allowed Woodbury Central (29-6) to tie the game with two unearned runs. Williamson had a hand in the wobbles, as she was charged with a pair of passed balls - the second coming with two outs and two strikes on batter Kristin Hubert - that allowed pinch-runner KayLynne Bechen to race home with the tying run.
But all of that was forgotten with one swing of the bat.
"It was amazing," Williamson said of the game-winning dinger. "I let that ball go past me and they scored, so I got nervous. But when I hit it it felt real good. It was very relieving."
It was Earlham's second long ball of the game; eighth-grader Taylor Hipsley rocked a Stille offering to left that just snuck over the fence in the third inning to give her team a 1-0 lead.
The Cardinals added an unearned run in the fourth for a 2-0 cushion.
Senior pitcher Kaylie Brindley took a no-hitter into the seventh, but it was broken up on a lead-off infield single by Erika Bates. Her run of 15 consecutive scoreless innings ended minutes later.
Brindley joined in the post-game celebration, but she didn't hesitate when asked about the big picture.
"(The championship game) is the one we really want," she said after the one-hitter that featured four strikeouts and nine pop-fly outs thanks largely to her effective riseball. "We're pretty calm about this one because we've done it before. We're looking ahead and we know we'll have to work hard."
Hipsley finished 2-for-2 at the plate; Williamson and lead-off stick Kristen Weber both went 2-for-3. Morgan Johnson added a single.
Stille was charged with six hits and two earned runs in the loss. She fanned five. Woodbury Central will face top-ranked Highland (32-2) in today's third-place game on INS Field at 11:30 a.m.
Earlham will tackle No. 5 Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont (26-5) in the title bout at 12:15 p.m. on Mittera Field.
As for Williamson, she knows what she needs to do to get ready to face the Rockets.
"I'm going to get a good night's rest," she said.
Only this time, she hopes it will happen in something other than a hospital bed.