After a heart-stopping moment, the packed church in Elliston stood up and erupted into cheers.
Some hugged; others fanned themselves -- sweating from the heat generated by the crowd and the suspense that mounted throughout the evening.
It's official: The folks of Elliston and northern Ohio will welcome their hometown hero back on Friday as a top three finalist.
At least 450 people crammed into Trinity United Church of Christ to watch Crystal Bowersox clear a milestone hurdle on American Idol. A sea of red shirts emblazoned with her name quickly filled the seats and left standing room only.
"This is the biggest thing to hit Elliston since ... well, ever," Rev. Lowell Peters said.
Before the show started, no one seemed to doubt Crystal would pull ahead. The mood was cheerful as they shared a potluck dinner and bought T-shirts and raffle tickets to raise nearly $500 for Diabetes Youth Services, Crystal's charity of choice.
"She's an amazing artist -- I'm glad to see someone from a small town and not a large city was able to go as far as she did," Port Clinton resident Charlie Rohtert said as he waited for the show to start with his wife Barb.
Elliston resident Debbie Green said watching Crystal perform gives her chills.
"It seems like no matter what she sings, she makes it interesting to listen to," she said.
Crystal's grandparents and father watched quietly among friends at the church. Her father wore a Harley-Davidson shirt with a leather beret and declined interviews, saying only, "I'm the proudest Papa Sox on the planet."
Tracy Dresser sold the popular red shirts and newly-designed black shirts that list all of the songs Crystal's performed on the show so far. What started with two dozen T-shirts passed around the church basement has morphed into a phenomenon, with more than 3,300 sold so far.
The show kicked off with a bit of a surprise for some, as host Ryan Seacrest announced Casey James would continue on in the competition. Then Lee DeWyze learned he was safe, leaving only Crystal and Michael Lynche.
After two weeks of lukewarm feedback, Crystal received rave reviews from the judges Tuesday when she sang a game-changing rendition of Kenny Loggins' "I'm Alright" from the soundtrack of the 1980 hit flick "Caddyshack."
Mama Sox and "Big Mike" clung to each other on the stage as they waited to hear who'd be heading home after a nationwide vote of 37 million.
Meanwhile, the church fell silent.
Church parishioner and kitchen volunteer Robin Hansen put down the dish she was washing and clasped her hands together as she watched.
"I'm still not worried at all," Grayton resident Kathy Appelhans said. "From early February, we just always knew she'd be in the top three. They're just saving the best for last."
In Oak Harbor and Elliston, the stage is set for Crystal's arrival. Brightly-colored messages of support decorate the windows of local businesses, and a sign at the Ottawa County Fairgrounds welcomes her.
Thousands are expected to flock there to hear her perform Friday at the free show, dubbed "Bower-stock."
Graytown resident Myron Zibbel, a friend of Crystal's grandfather, wondered aloud if Elliston had any formal token of their appreciation to present to her. Traditionally, the mayor of the American Idol finalists' hometowns honors them with a key to the city.
"If we have to give her a key to the city, I don't know what we're going to do," Zibbel said. "We don't even have a mayor."
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: "Bower-stock," a welcome parade featuring American Idol finalist Crystal Bowersox.
WHEN: Gates open at noon Friday; parade slated for 4 p.m. with Crystal's performance to follow.
WHERE: Ottawa County Fairgrounds, 7870 W. Ohio 163
COST: Free to all, but donations may be made to benefit Diabetes Youth Services, which teaches Toledo-area children to manage their diabetes and helped Crystal as a child, and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
INFO: Fans can welcome Crystal home any way they wish, as long as they do it without alcohol. Feel free to bring coolers, but be prepared to have them searched.