BLOOMINGTON — Taylor Clugston had a chance to be a hero in her hometown Thursday night. The Bloomington High School graduate wasted no time in seizing upon it.

Clugston hit the first pitch she saw in the bottom of the seventh inning up the middle for a single, driving home the winning run in North Central’s 2-1 victory over top-seeded Illinois Wesleyan in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin softball tournament at IWU Field.

“Our coach (Jim Kulawiak) always tells us when runners are in scoring position, look for the first good pitch and attack it,” Clugston said.

The freshman shortstop pounced on the delivery from reliever Alie Tarrant, bringing home pinch runner Bri Floyd from second to cap a two-run rally.

Third-seeded North Central (20-16) advanced to the noon championship game Friday against the winner of a 10 a.m. contest between IWU (30-9) and second-seeded Wheaton (28-12). If a second title game is necessary, it will start at 2 p.m.

“We knew we could do it,” Clugston said of the comeback. “We have a lot of faith in each other and as a team we really came together and strung some hits together finally.

“A lot of my family and friends were here, so it was nice to let them see that.”

The loss was a heartbreaker for the Titans, who earlier Thursday rallied from a 6-0 deficit to edge fourth-seeded Carthage, 7-6, in eight innings.

Danielle Smith’s bases-loaded hit to left-center in the eighth provided the late-inning magic in that game. On Thursday night, it was provided by RBI hits from North Central’s Sarah Esposito and Clugston, who had two of the Cardinals’ four hits.

IWU starter Mackenzie Marquis took a one-hitter and a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh. Rachele Belletini led off with a single and advanced to second when the throw to the infield got away. IWU coach Kat McCreery lifted Marquis at that point for Tarrant, who was the winner in relief against Carthage.

“I coach from the gut. I say that to everyone,” McCreery said. “Tonight my gut was just wrong. That’s a bummer and they executed. With a runner in scoring position they found a way to score.

“They were aggressive and I wish we would have been a little more aggressive in our at-bats. We really didn’t have good quality at-bats.”

IWU got its run in the fifth against Andrea Starr on a two-out RBI double from No. 9 hitter Maggie Graham. The Titans managed only two other hits against Starr (13-11), one of them a third-inning single by Graham.

Marquis struck out five and walked four before giving way to Tarrant (4-1).

“We have to rebound,” McCreery said. “Our team is full of depth. That plays well for us (Friday).”

Earlier Thursday, IWU trailed Carthage 6-0 before scoring six runs on two hits in the fifth inning. Smith had a pivotal bases-loaded bunt in a rally that included four walks, four Carthage errors and the ejection of Lady Reds head coach Amy Gillmore following a play at the plate.

Three innings later, Smith’s shot into the gap won a game that featured 13 walks, six hit batters, five Carthage errors and only four IWU hits.

“One thing I think that’s really special about this team is we all have heart,” Smith said. “You could be up by 14 on us and it doesn’t matter. We’re going to fight until the end and we’re going to find a way. I think that’s what we did.”

Carthage (19-21), which later was eliminated by a 6-3 loss to second-seeded Wheaton, took a 4-0 lead in the first against IWU’s Jenna Noland on a walk, two hit batters and a grand slam by Darian Pelsor.

Carthage made it 6-0 in the fourth on an RBI triple by Shannon Walsh, which chased Noland in favor of Tarrant, and an RBI single from Kristine Herdegen. Tarrant did not allow a run the rest of the way to get the win, courtesy of Smith’s hit.

“I thought the pitch before she hit, something in her stance and her approach showed me a lot more aggressiveness,” McCreery said. “I’m obviously so happy that we could get somebody to get the clutch hit there. She had a great at-bat.”

Laura Bonds had a two-run single for the Titans in their six-run fifth. Herdegen, Sam McCloud and Kay Uhwat each had two of Carthage’s nine hits.

IWU had only one hit in the first four innings against Katie Herron (11-7).

“We kept telling them, ‘Relax, relax. We still have a lot of game to play. You’re a good team. We just need to battle, we need to show some fight,’ ” McCreery said. “I thought that (fifth) inning our at-bats improved. All we needed was a spark to light a fire and we certainly did that.”

Follow Randy Kindred on Twitter: @pg_kindred

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Sports Editor

Sports Editor for The Pantagraph.

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