Sectional finals have haunted the Kaukauna softball team for the last three years.
Thanks to a no-hitter and a two-run homer from senior pitcher Haley Hestekin against Pulaski last week, that wait is now over.
The program has fallen short for the last six seasons, but for the Galloping Ghosts' seven current seniors, this was their last chance to break through for a berth at the WIAA state tournament.
"The seniors this year made a point that we're sick of this for four years," Hestekin said. "It's definitely been ups and downs. Everybody that's on the field has got to really buy into it. It's not been fun, I'll tell you that. Losing the sectional finals three (years) in a row is never fun, but finally coming out on top makes it worth it. If we had to go through all that to make it through a sectional final game, I'm OK with it."
Coach Tim Roehrig says the seniors have been an integral catalyst for the team's success this season.
"The mentality (was) that they were not going to get stopped there (at sectionals)," he said. "I think for Haley, she was on a little bit of a mission to get down to Madison. I think for a number of the kids who have been up here for three or for years, it's a mission for them to say that we're going to end our season down there, somewhere."
Roehrig points to the Ghosts' defensive performances in recent games as a major key going into the tournament.
"We really have stressed the idea that we have to make plays every single play, so seeing that right now and the way we're playing defense, it's really helped us click," he said.
The difference in 2017 has been the Ghosts' chemistry, something Roehrig and Hestekin are quick to attribute. Hestekin also knows her defense has her back, which gives her a confidence bump in the circle, no matter the opponent.
"They make it fun to be around, they make it fun to come to practice, and we all play for each other," she said. "My teammates will be like, 'Hey, we've got you,' and that's really nice to have as a pitcher."
Kaukauna (26-2) will face Fox Valley Association champs Oshkosh North on Thursday at 12:30 p.m. in the state quarterfinals. The Spartans are a familiar opponent, one that beat Kaukauna 1-0 and 5-0 in two matchups earlier in the season.
"It's definitely motivating," Hestekin said of playing the Spartans first. "I mean, I grew up with those girls. They know a lot about me, I know a lot about them. Honestly, I think it's going to be the team that's the most loose and has the most fun with it, just enjoy the moment and soak everything up."
"It's going to be a battle, it's going to be a dogfight, and one team is going to come out on top."
Roehrig, on the other hand, just sees it as another stop on the Ghosts' road towards that state title goal.
"If you're going to win it all, I guess you've got to beat everybody, so it doesn't really matter who you play first game. And ultimately, I think the pressure is on them. They beat us twice," Roehrig said. "We just got to go out there, do our best and see what we can do. I think our girls have never shied away from an opponent, so I don't see us shying away from anybody at this point."