Any number of things could have affected the Buena High softball team during its 3-0 defeat at the hands of St. Paul in the Southern Section 4-A Division final last weekend at Mayfair Park in Lakewood.
It could have been the strong pitching of St. Paul right-hander Keri Kropke that bothered the Bulldogs.
It could have been the large, vociferous crowd that got to them.
Or, maybe it was simply playing at night, and in a 4-A final, both firsts for the Bulldogs.
Or it might have been all of those things, as Buena Coach Sharon Coggins contended.
"It was just the whole combination of things. Up at the plate, the girls weren't hitting. Their whole rhythm changed."
And whatever it was that caused it, the change was for the worse. Buena was shut out for the first time this season.
"I'm not really sure what it was, but we weren't hitting," second baseman Annette Bell said.
"That's the first time I've seen our bats not working. The pitches didn't really look like they moved around that much. It was just the speed of them, I think. It got us frustrated. After a while, you get so you're saying, 'Well, when are we going to start hitting?' "
The Bulldogs never really did as Kropke, a junior, pitched a three-hitter and struck out 14.
"We just weren't hitting," Buena's Kim Maher said. "And when we did, it was right to somebody. She was a really smart pitcher. She really put her pitches all over."
Senior Rustie Stevens agreed.
"Their pitcher was pretty good. I think that's the fastest pitching we've faced all year," she said.
"Plus, it was a new experience. Maybe it was playing at night, and the crowd was pretty obnoxious, and it took us a while to get used to it. I think everybody settled down about the fourth or fifth inning, but, by then it was too late."
St. Paul (21-6) scored the only run it needed Saturday in the third inning, off starting and losing pitcher Tamara Evans (15-3). Two more runs in the fifth secured the win for St. Paul, which collected 10 hits against Evans and relief pitcher Maher.
Evans, who will attend the Texas Arlington on a softball scholarship next year, gave up three runs, eight hits and a walk, and struck out four in four innings. Maher, a sophomore, allowed two hits and two walks and struck out three in three innings of relief.
The loss ended a 13-game winning streak for Buena (26-3-1), which also had a school-record 16-game win streak.
"The winning streak seemed like it went forever. It was going too good for too long," said Stevens, one of six Buena starters who had been batting better than .300 going into the game with St. Paul.
"I think us seniors took it pretty tough, because this was our last year," she said. "But that's the farthest Buena's ever gone in the playoffs."
That fact, however, contributed to much of the Bulldogs' frustration over the loss.
"We took it pretty hard after the game," Bell said.
"I wish we would have learned how to lose. We're a winning team and we were feeling kind of frustrated.
"I think we felt like, since we went that far, we should have won it," she said.
Buena senior Audra Olive, who had two of the Bulldogs' three hits in the final, took solace in her belief that Buena was the better team, despite the loss.
"They had a pitcher, but we had a team," she said. "If we would have made contact a couple more times--who knows. If we played them again, I think we'd beat 'em."
Olive, who will attend Western Illinois on a softball scholarship next year, tried to put the championship loss into perspective.
"Everybody felt bad right after the game, but we had a good season and there's nothing to be ashamed of," she said.
The Bulldogs' 16-game winning streak after a loss in their season-opener was a school record, and the team's overall record this season was the best in school history. The Bulldogs also set single-season team records for hits, triples, home runs and runs batted in. Individually, Evans set school records for wins (53) and strikeouts (539) in a career, and Kelly Higgins (five home runs on the year) hit the first grand slam in Buena softball history.
Only four seniors from this year's team will be lost to graduation. Thus, the Bulldogs already are looking forward to next season.
"I think we finally realized how good we were," Bell said. "We're going to have a good team, and we feel confident we can do it next year."
That's just what Coggins likes to hear.
"I told the kids, I want it even more next year," she said of a possible.