All of the swings Payton Mercer took against her dad in the batting cages when she was barely big enough to hold a bat gave her the confidence to make her dream come true on Thursday during Class 4A state softball semifinal round at Rogers Park.
One swing was all she needed to turn the tide.
Mercer's sixth-inning grand slam capped a rally that probably no one outside of the Carlisle dugout expected, as she gave the third-ranked Wildcats the lead for good in their improbable 11-9 victory over Washington.
"I've been working ever since I was six or seven years old, hitting with my dad in the cages I don't even know how to explain this," a beaming Mercer said after going 2-for-3 with three runs scored and five RBI. "It was just perfect and that's what we live for."
Washington (30-12) jumped all over Carlisle (34-7) early, scoring seven runs in the first inning and running Wildcat starting pitcher Shyanne Dubois after just two outs.
The Demons sent 10 batters to the plate and lashed seven of their 14 hits in the first frame. Grace Redlinger and Chayse Jaspering both uncorked two-run home runs during the flurry.
Carlisle 11, Washington 9
Carlisle004 024 1-11 9 0
Washington700 002 0-9 14 2
Shyanne Dubois, Gabby Schnathorst (1) and Elin Landgren. Ashley Rausch and Kaitlin Buchholz. W-Schnathorst. L-Rausch. 2B-Carlisle: Peyton Mercer, Taylor Davis, Lauren Kruse; Washington: Maddie Bohr, Kaitlin Buchholz, Ashley Rausch, Kolbi Breard. HR-Carlisle: Mercer; Washington: Grace Redlinger, Chayse Jaspering. RBI-Carlisle: Mercer (5), T. Davis (3), Kruse, Abby Davis, Elin Landgren; Washington: Rausch (2), Redlinger (2), Jaspering (2), Buchholz, Sammy Ellingson.
"They're a good team, but I just kept saying that we have a good hitting team too and I thought we could get back in it," Carlisle head coach Jim Flaws said after his 950th career victory. "I think (the first inning) settled us down, because basically, we had to fight for our lives.
"I can't believe it. That's the biggest comeback win I've ever had."
Carlisle chipped away at the Demons' lead with four runs in the third inning and then pulled to within a run with two more in the fifth.
Taylor Davis jumpstarted the rally with a bases-clearing three-run double to center in the third, and she later scored.
Mercer ripped an RBI double down the left-field line in the fifth, and eventually scored on Elin Landgren's RBI squeeze bunt to make it 7-6.
Mercer's sixth-inning bomb came with two outs.
"At first I was just hoping (Washington center fielder Sammy Ellingson) wouldn't catch it because I didn't know where it was going," Mercer said. "Then it went over and it was like a huge breath of fresh air."
Washington didn't go away though. The Demons tacked on two runs in the bottom of the sixth on a Kaitlin Buchholz two-RBI double to right to trim Carlisle's edge to 10-9.
Lauren Kruse provided the Wildcats an insurance run in the top of the seventh with her own RBI double down the right-field line.
Carlisle freshman hurler Gabby Schnathorst worked her way out of a seventh-inning jam by inducing a double play and then celebrated after going 6 1/3 innings in relief. She allowed seven hits, but just two earned runs.
"At first we were a little shaky and a little bit scared, but we respond to things like that," Schnathorst said. "Our motto is believe, and that's exactly what we did. We believed in each other."
Flaws beamed when he talked about his rookie pitcher afterwards.
"Gabby Schnathorst came off the bench and just pitched tremendous for us," he said.
Washington out hit Carlisle 14-9, but two Demon errors led to four unearned runs. Pitcher Ashley Rausch fanned two and walked two in the loss.
Mercer, Davis, Kruse and Hattie Hupke all had two hits for Carlisle. Rausch went 3-for-4 at the dish for Washington; Buchholz, Maddie Bohr and Jonie Erwin all had two base knocks.
Carlisle, at the state tournament for a sixth consecutive season, will face No. 2 Dallas Center-Grimes (37-5) for the state title on Friday at 4:45 p.m. on Diamond 1. They split a pair of regular season meetings.
The Wildcats will be in search of their fifth state championship under Flaws. They last won the 3A crown in 2010.
Washington will square off with No. 5 Indianola (33-10) in today's third-place game on Diamond 2 at 3:30 p.m.