Not known as a flamethrower by any means, VCHS senior Emily Shields' game plan is to throw strikes and let her defense do its thing behind her.
It's a philosophy that helped Shields toss a shutout against Lincolnwood Saturday, and lead the Lady Vandals to their fourth win in five games with a 3-1 victory over Altamont Tuesday.
Shields followed that same game plan Monday at South Central.
The results, however, would never give the indication that Shields was pitching to contact.
Shields tossed her second consecutive shutout - striking 11 in the process - leading Vandalia to a 2-0 victory.
It was an unexpected strikeout tally for a pitcher who fanned just 73 batters in 145 innings a season ago, and Shields recorded her career-high in the "K" category in unconventional fashion.
"She's got a changeup and a curveball she's been throwing," VCHS coach Jennifer Ades said. "She was able to keep them off balance with off-speed pitches."
Shields made a pair unearned third-inning runs stand up by holding South Central hitless through the first three innings before working out of big jams in the fourth and fifth innings.
She then closed out strong by striking out four of the final six batters she faced.
"She did a good job," Lady Cougars coach Todd Venters said. "They've got a good pitcher. She pounded the strike zone and made big pitches when she needed to."
Shields' performance helped Vandalia get over the .500 mark for the first time this season, and Ades feels her team can stay there the rest of the year.
"Definitely," Ades said. "I think the girls have their confidence up, and they've got the talent to make this a really good season for us."
The Lady Vandals might have been kicking themselves had Shields not been able to hold the Lady Cougars at bay, as they stranded nine runners on the basepaths, had another caught stealing and lost three runners on force plays at the plate.
Ironically, VCHS used an opportunistic rally to push in the only runs of the game.
After Shelby Cearlock beat out an infield single leading off the third, Amanda Walton's sacrifice bunt attempt was thrown wild up the first base line, putting runners on first and third.
Laura Hobbie followed with a dribbler in front of the plate that was thrown wild again, allowing Cearlock to score and Walton and Hobbie to advance to second and third.
Following a popout, Dana McCarty continued her productive hitting by driving in Walton from third with a groundout.
Both teams had premium opportunities to change the course of the game in the middle innings, but Shields and her counterpart, Lauren Matheny, worked out of a pair of jams apiece.
The Lady Cougars (2-3) looked to be in business in the bottom of the fourth, as Katelyn Hebron singled and Sarah Meyer doubled with nobody out. But Shields struck out the next two batters and got a groundout to escape the inning unscathed.
South Central loaded the bases with two outs its next time up, but first baseman Hannah Donaldson kept the shutout intact by fielding a Meyer grounder and beating her to first base on a bang-bang play.
"If we get that call, the tying run probably scores," Venters said. "But that's how it goes. Sometimes you don't get the calls."
Vandalia loaded the bases with just one out in the fifth and sixth innings, but South Central's infield made a handful of heads-up plays, cutting three Lady Vandals down at the plate on grounders to keep the Lady Cougars in the game.
"Though we had plays (early on) that cost us, we made a heck of a lot more that kept it tight," Venters said. "It could have been 8-0 in a hurry, but we made the plays we needed to."
Matheny took the tough-luck loss despite allowing no earned runs in a complete-game effort. Considering it was the Lady Cougars' first game in a week, Venters wasn't concerned at all with his team's showing.
"If (Matheny) does that all the time, we're going to be fine," Venters said. "I think our hitting will come around.
"There's no reason to get excited, because we played good. The thing for me that was impressive is we had our backs against the wall a couple times and held them."
Cearlock led an eight-hit Vandalia attack with three hits, including a triple, while Donaldson was 2-for-3 with a double.
The victory was the Lady Vandals' third in the last four games. Following Tuesday's win, they are already halfway toward their win total for all of last year (8).
Ades did not hesitate when asked what the difference between this year's and last year's team was.
"Experience," Ades said. "They've been at the varsity level longer. They've been there before, and they're not quite so nervous when they get out there on the field."
Audra Donaldson went 1-for-2 with a triple and an RBI for the Lady Vandals, but South Central prevailed, 3-1. Donaldson added six strikeouts and allowed just one hit in three innings in the pitcher's circle, but she took the loss.
Varsity Box Score
Vandalia 002 000 0 - 2 8 1
S. Central 000 000 0 - 0 6 2
WP - Shields (3-2, 7IP, 11K, 2BB, 6H). LP - La. Matheny (7IP, 2K, 3BB, 7H, 2R). Top hitters - Vandalia: Cearlock 3-4 (3B), Walton 1-2, Donaldson 2-3 (2B), McCarty 1-3, Edgar 1-2; South Central: Githinji 1-2, Hebron 2-3. Record - Vandalia is 3-2, South Central is 2-3.
Vandalia 3, Altamont 1
The Lady Vandals (4-2) kept rolling, as Shields held the Lady Indians to just one run on four hits and one walk.
Her teammates provided just enough offense in support, as Banal went 2-for-3 with two doubles and Edgar went 1-for-2 with a double.
Altamont 010 000 0 - 1 4
Vandalia 101 001 x - 3 4
WP - Shields (4-2, 7IP, 4H, 1BB, 1R). LP - Hankins (6IP, 7K, 1BB, 4H, 3R). Vandalia top hitters - Banal 2-3 (2 2B), Edgar 1-2 (2B). Records - Altamont is 0-5, Vandalia is 4-2.
The Lady Vandals' formula for success Saturday was as ideal as the sun-drenched scene at Freight Field: Shields threw strikes. Her teammates rewarded her with great defense. And VCHS consistently made contact at the plate.
"Excellent defense, excellent pitching and excellent at-bats," Ades said. "We did a really good job today."
Shields threw her first shutout of the young season, scattering five hits while issuing zero walks. It was Shields' third straight quality start after a tough season-opener at Newton.
"This is her fourth year, and she's really found her confidence," Ades said. "She's been working on her pitching in the offseason a lot, and she's ready. I think she's going to continue performing at the level we need her at."
A big assist goes out to Lady Vandals' defense, which made a number of outstanding plays in support of Shields.
Top plays included Walton's shoestring grab in center to rob Lincolnwood of a hit in the third, a catch that was preceded by Halli Berst alertly throwing a Lancers' runner out at first on what appeared to be a clean hit to right.
Hobbie preserved Shields' shutout in the sixth by picking up a deflected ball at third base and gunning down a Lincolnwood runner at the plate.
"Our girls are very sound defensively," said Ades. "They're very comfortable in their positions, and I just think they'll continue performing at the level they are right now."
Vandalia had its lone defensive lapse in the seventh, as an error and a misplay helped the Lancers load the bases with nobody out.
But Banal made up for her miscue by snagging a line drive and stepping on third for a key double play. Walton then put the squeeze on a fly ball to center to end the game.
"That kind of shows that our girls are keeping their heads in the game and aren't letting a few runners make a big difference and get them down," said Ades of her team escaping the jam unscathed. "That's key."
Though the Lady Vandals finished with just five hits, Ades was pleased with her offense, which hit a number of balls right on the nose.
"The good thing is, we're making contact," Ades said. "It really starts out there. If we make contact, we'll start finding those holes."
The Vandals gave Shields all the support she'd need with a three-run rally in the first. After Shelby Cearlock led off with an infield single, Walton doubled to deep center to put Vandalia up 1-0. After a pair of fielding gaffs on a Hobbie dribbler put the Lady Vandals up 2-0, McCarty put Vandalia up 3-0 with an RBI single.
It was the senior second baseman's fifth hit in her last five at-bats.
Lincolnwood 000 000 0 - 0 5 2
Vandalia 300 000 x - 3 5 1
WP - Shields (2-2, 7IP, 2K, 1BB, 5H). LP - Wernsing (6IP, 7H, 0BB, 4H, 3R). Vandalia top hitters - Walton 1-3 (2B, BI), McCarty 2-2 (2B, BI), Edgar 1-2, Cearlock 1-3. JV Result - Lincolnwood 13, Vandalia 1.
Pana 4, Vandalia 3
The host Lady Panthers rallied from a late 3-1 deficit with a run in the sixth and a decisive two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh.
Shields suffered the loss despite striking out seven in as many innings of work. She surrendered eight hits and walked three.
McCarty led an eight-hit attack by going 3-for-3 with an RBI, while Cearlock was 2-for-4.
Vandalia 201 000 0 - 3
Pana 100 001 2 - 4
WP - Dry (7IP, 9K, 2BB, 8H, 3R). LP - Shields (1-2, 7IP, 7K, 3BB, 8H, 4R). Vandalia top hitters - McCarty 3-3 (BI), Cearlock 2-4, Newsome 1-2, Donaldson 1-2. Pana top hitters - Combs 3-3, Kuhn 1-2. JV Result - Pana 5, Vandalia 0 (4 innings).
Last Wednesday's Game
Breese Central 2
Banal went 2-for-4 with two RBIs, including the game-winning RBI single in the seventh, as the Lady Vandals picked up their first victory of the spring.
After Cearlock led off the seventh with a triple, Banal singled through the second-base hole for her second RBI of the day.
The hit made a winner of Shields, who allowed just three hits and a walk in a complete-game effort. Shields struck out four and allowed just two earned runs.
Hannah Donaldson added two hits in as many at-bats for Vandalia, while Edgar went 1-for-2, driving in the game-tying run with an RBI single in the sixth.
Vandalia 001 001 1 - 3
Central 002 000 0 - 2
WP - Shields (7IP, 4K, 1BB, 3H, 2R). LP - Raterman. Vandalia top hitters - Donaldson 2-2, Banal 2-4 (3B, 2 BI), Edgar 1-2 (BI).