Every year, in September, Tinley Park softball coach Wendy Podbielniak sits her players down and asks them to set some goals for the following spring.
This year’s Titans squad figured to be deep and talented. She expected some high goals.
“Honestly, I’ve had some kids say they were only going to go so far,” Podbielniak said. “But this group of seniors said, ‘This is the year. We’re going to win conference, regionals, sectionals and state.’”
By the time April rolled around, two would-be starters were out of the mix because of injuries, and by the end of April one of the Titans’ best hitters (Liz Brzezinski) was lost due to a knee injury.
“We just kept talking to the kids about how life presents opportunities and what opportunities they have been given,” Podbielniak said.
The Titans haven’t wasted many.
Tinley Park did come up one game short to Lemont in the chase for the South Suburban Blue title. But an extraordinary playoff run has seen this Titans softball team go where no other has gone.
Tuesday’s Class 3A supersectional appearance at Illinois State University is the first-ever for a Titans softball team. In fact, only the 1986 Class 4A championship football team and the 2007 and ’08 cheerleading squads have gone farther.
“We’re looking at this like another chance to make school history,” Podbielniak said.
Tinley Park (22-7) is to play the winner of Monday’s Bartonville-Limestone Sectional title game between Metamora and Peoria Notre Dame.
The Titans earned their ticket Saturday with a 7-2 Coal City Sectional final win over LaSalle-Peru.
It was a relative laugher for the Titans, who survived two consecutive 1-0 nailbiters against host Oak Forest in a regional final, and Lincoln-Way West in the Coal City semi.
Senior pitcher Sarah Gillespie, who had been splitting time during the regular season with freshman Annalise Scott, has been brilliant in the postseason, following up back-to-back shutouts with a four-hit, six-strikeout effort on Saturday.
“That kid is a gamer,” Podbielniak said of Gillespie. “There’s no glitz, no glamour, she just loves playing.
“We’ve been using a rotation this season but I told Annalise, ‘She’s the senior. She has earned this right as a senior. You just be ready when you’re needed.’ And Annalise has been very good about it.”
The Titans went right at LaSalle-Peru, scoring three runs in the first inning on a singles by Alyssa Gunther, Lexxie Lux and Alyssa Williams and a successful suicide squeeze by Alex Laphen.
Laphen later singled and scored on a base hit by Megan Laib, while Gunther and Lux both produced RBI after a double by Kaitlyn Sebastian.
Defensively, the Titans committed just one error, their second in the last three games.
“These kids just will not let a ball drop,” Podbielniak said. “It’s just been amazing. I mean, these kids are working their butts off.
“Mentally, they are ready to go. If the coaching staff wouldn’t have shown up at the game (Saturday) they still would have won it. That’s how focused they are. Bring it on, they’re ready to go.”
The other Southland survivor, Sandburg (24-14), is to play York (22-14) Monday at 6 p.m. in the Class 4A Rosemont Supersectional.
York, trailing by a pair of runs with two outs in the seventh inning against Trinity in Saturday’s Resurrection Sectional title game, rallied behind a three-run triple by Gracie Sullivan to pull a 7-5 upset victory.
It was York’s first sectional title since 2003.
The Eagles, meanwhile, did some rallying of their own in a 5-4 victory over Marist in the Richards Sectional final, as Sam Radunz and Ellie Forkin both produced key RBI doubles and Sarah Herold pitched her way out of a bases-loaded one-out situation in the bottom of the seventh.
Sandburg, winners of 14 of its last 16 games, is making its 12th supersectional appearance since 1999.
The Eagles and York have not met in 2013.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Sandburg coach Jim Fabianski said. “We respect everybody and fear nobody.
“Candice (Koch) said at the start of the Marist game that, ‘This is not about Marist. It’s about us. Let’s be the best version of us for this game, and not worry about them.
“I think going into York, it’s even more of an opportunity to be that way. We don’t have a history with them, so it’s more of an opportunity for us to just play our game.”