Aces High: Mulberry Grove wins first-ever sectional game

Everything about the Mulberry Grove softball team’s thrilling 4-2 come-from-behind victory over the host team Wednesday at the Lincolnwood Class 1A Sectional reminded coach John Barnes of a win four years ago that sent his current group of seniors to state their eighth-grade year.

Same field. Same teams. Same final score. Even the same hero.

But the subtle differences between those two games are what made the Lady Aces’ first-ever sectional victory all the more special to Barnes.

Unlike that game four years ago, senior Brittany Crandell – who was forced to give up pitching this spring due to a rotator cuff tear – was the hero at the plate instead of in the pitcher’s circle.

Her clutch two-out, two-run single in the top of the seventh proved to be the game-winning hit – a hit that made a winner out of Crandell’s unexpected replacement, a girl who was a fifth-grader and ‘probably about 3 foot tall’ the last time Mulberry Grove faced Lincolnwood under similar circumstances.

‘I would have never thought she would had cracked the starting lineup, much less win a regional championship (game), a conference championship (game) and the first game of sectionals,’ said Barnes of diminutive freshman pitcher Joanna Brewer.

Brewer set herself up to do the latter by retiring the final 14 batters that she faced against Lincolnwood, giving the girl she was expected to back up in the pitcher’s circle the opportunity to resuscitate a decisive seventh-inning rally that appeared to be on life support seconds before.

‘Amazing,’ Barnes said. ‘Who would have guessed it?’

Certainly not Crandell.

‘It really does amaze me,’ said Crandell of Brewer, who improved to 9-2 by allowing five hits, two walks and stranding seven runners in a complete-game effort. ‘She’s been outstanding. She’s just been hitting her spots and has been so amazing.’

Brewer has helped pick up Crandell and her teammates since the ace’s injury, and, fittingly, Crandell picked up Brewer’s older sister, Rachel, in the seventh.

Absolutely everything was going the Lady Aces’ way prior to Brewers’ at-bat, as Lincolnwood seemed bound and determined to cough up its 2-1 lead.

Zoe Zinkgraff led off the inning with a hard single to right that would have been a putout had Lincolnwood’s first baseman been able to scoop a low throw from the outfield.

Jaqueline Youngman followed with a bounder to third that was thrown wild into right field on an ill-advised attempt to get the lead runner at second.

Joanna Brewer then reached on a bunt back to Lincolnwood’s pitcher, who faked to third base in an attempt to keep pinch runner Jessica Willis from sneaking in with the tying run, only to watch Willis stay put and the speedy Brewer race safely to first before she could even get a throw off.

Endia Fletcher followed by reaching on a game-tying chopper to third, as Willis easily beat the throw to home.

The Lady Aces couldn’t have asked for a more ideal scenario to push in the go-ahead runner, as No. 4 hitter Rachel Brewer came to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out.

But Brewer grounded into an unlikely 5-2-3 double play that appeared to swing the momentum back into the host team’s favor.

Crandell stole it right back, however, drilling a two-run single up the middle that sent the Lady Aces’ bench into a frenzy, giving Mulberry Grove a lead it would not relinquish.

‘Huge. Unreal,’ Barnes said. ‘She was just in the right place at the right time.’

For Crandell, it was sweet redemption after a senior regular season in which her ability to do what she does best on the softball diamond – pitch – was taken away from her.

‘It’s really, really rewarding,’ Crandell said. ‘It was amazing. I was so happy. Even though I couldn’t pitch, I still got a hit.’

Crandell admits the injury nearly got the best of her – and her team – early in the year.

‘It was really depressing,’ Crandell said. ‘I’ve cried after a couple games I wanted to pitch in.’

But the younger Brewer has managed to stabilize the team, even though Crandell has looked on with envy from time to time.

‘I get jealous of her a little bit,’ said Crandell with a laugh. ‘I’ve told my mom a couple nights that I’m really jealous of Joey, because she gets to pitch.’

But she’s been even more impressed with Brewer’s ability to succeed as much as she did – if not more – as a freshman.

‘I’m really proud of how she’s handling it and how she’s doing,’ Crandell said.

Crandell finished the game 2-for-3, while the elder Brewer was 1-for-3 with an RBI single that tied the game at 1-1 in the third.

Lincolnwood took a 2-1 lead with an unearned run in the third inning, but the damage could have been much greater, as the Lady Aces escaped a first-and-third, one-out situation unscathed.

The key play of the frame came when shortstop April Betts cut off a Fletcher peg to second and gunned down a Lincolnwood runner at the plate on an attempted double steal. Brewer then escaped the jam by getting a strikeout and coaxing a groundout.

She wouldn’t allow a runner the rest of the way, as Mulberry Grove went on to advance to a sectional final for the first time in program history.

‘It’s a hurdle we had to jump,’ Barnes said. ‘And it’s amazing how things worked out.’

The Aces came up short against top-ranked Lebanon in the championship game, however, falling 7-0. Please see the separate story on this page for further details.

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