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MULBERRY GROVE – It wasn’t the desired approach, but the nine-person Mulberry Grove High School softball team scored in all but one inning to slowly pile up a lead against Ramsey to win its fourth regional championship in six years on Saturday.
Coach John Barnes said he wanted his team to score a lot of runs early in the game, but the Lady Aces instead used consistent hitting and stellar pitching through the middle innings to wear down Ramsey during a 9-4 victory.
“We wanted to jump on them early, but we just kind of trickled it,” Barnes said. “If we do what we did today against a better team, we’d be in trouble.”
Deep in the playoffs, he said, leaving eight runners on base and allowing a string of hits and runs in the seventh inning could be disastrous, and if the Lady Aces do that again on Thursday against Marissa at the Lebanon sectional, they would probably lose the game.
Barnes said he believed Lebanon, which lost the state championship game last season, would be the team to beat in this year's sectional, but Marissa defeated Lebanon in the regional championship game, 14-11, last Friday.
“We have a big game on Thursday,” Barnes said. “(Marissa) scored 14 runs off a quality pitcher, and if they can hit her, they can hit us.
“Lebanon has always been the team (to beat), but now that they are out of the way, you have to respect the team that beat them.”
The game starts at 4:30 p.m., and the winner advances to the sectional final at 11 a.m. this Saturday.
The Lady Rams opened the scoring during the regional championship game, with three straight singles in the top of the first inning.
Mulberry Grove, however, would seize the lead in the bottom of that frame, after sophomore Becca Oldham led off the inning with a single and scored after two errors were committed on a bunt by Zoe Zinkgraf.
Zinkgraf also scored on the same play.
“The errors really hurt us,” said Ramsey coach Mike Jackson. “We showed we’re young.”
A standout pitching performance from Oldham during innings two through six didn’t help Ramsey’s chances either.
In that stretch, the only damage was a walk to junior Mikey Luster in the second and a single by Luster in the fifth.
“We were playing Ramsey like they were the No. 1 team in Illinois,” Barnes said.
Otherwise, in those innings, there were eight ground outs, four fly outs, two strikeouts and one runner was caught stealing.
On offense, the Lady Aces scored twice in each the fourth, fifth and sixth innings to build their lead.
“There was hardly anything in between,” Barnes said. “They sandwiched hits in the first and seventh, but we did a good job in between.
“Becca made quality pitches, and it was three up, three down. If they score any runs in there, that (seventh) inning is huge.”
In the seventh, three hits and two Mulberry Grove errors resulted in three additional runs for the Lady Rams.
Freshman Sydney Lay and sophomore Jordan Blackburn were both credited with an RBI during the inning.
“We’ve done that a few times this year,” Jackson said. “They play through it and don’t give up. A lot of young teams are going to hang their heads and fold, but we didn’t.”
Ramsey loses just one senior this season, and Jackson said he is excited that the core of his team will be juniors next season.
The Nos. 7-9 hitters for the Lady Aces reached base in six of their 11 plate appearances. That allowed Oldham, the leadoff batter, to drive in five runs on her four hits, which Barnes called, “Huge.”
“The bottom of the order did really well today,” he said. “Becca had five RBI today – that shows you what the bottom of the order did.”
Most improved Lady Ace
Barnes had nothing but praise for junior Courtney Thomas after the regional title game.
Thomas, who had not played an inning of softball at any level prior to this season, has become an integral part of Mulberry Grove’s team, because of the lack of athletes in the program.
“Whatever she has learned, she has picked up in the last 8-10 weeks,” Barnes said. “She blended in with a state-caliber team very well.
“In 10 weeks, she’s learned how to play right field, bat from both sides of the plate and bunt.”
Against Ramsey, Thomas had one sacrifice bunt and reached on error on a later bunt attempt.