Faith is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as something that is believed especially with strong conviction.
It is a word that has become synonymous with Mulberry Grove softball coach John Barnes’ teams in recent years.
And the Lady Aces’ 2008 campaign is a perfect example of faith rewarded.
Mulberry Grove entered the season positioned for unprecedented success, with everyone back from a 22-7 team, including ace hurler Brittany Crandell and her 65 career victories.
But then the plane seemingly crashed into the mountain.
Crandell went down with a torn rotator cuff in the very first game of the year, leaving the Lady Aces with their faith tested like never before, Barnes included.
‘I had my doubts,’ said Barnes, who had zero varsity pitching experience to turn to in Crandell’s absence. ‘But I told the girls, ‘I’ll be darned if we’re gonna practice out here three hours a day and lose.”
Senior Rachel Brewer remembers Barnes’ words after Crandell’s devastating injury well.
‘He said, ‘This is our ship. If it sinks, it’s because we gave up.”
The Lady Aces took heed. And not only did the ship not sink – Barnes and company guided it into uncharted territory.
Despite being without the services of their ace in a sport in which pitching is king, the Lady Aces went on to their second regional title in three years, their first-ever win in sectional play and a program-record 26 wins.
And, along with that success, has come some long overdue recognition for Barnes and his program.
In addition to being named The Leader-Union’s 2008 Spring Coach of the Year, Barnes recently garnered the Illinois Coaches Association’s Class 1A Coach of the Year award out of the Carrollton Super-Sectional.
‘Any other year, getting something like this would have been kind of embarrassing, because more credit should go to our girls and the community – they don’t get enough credit,’ said Barnes.
‘But it feels good coming after this year, because this season, I had to be more of a psychologist. I feel this year we used a lot of smoke and mirrors and it was like a poker game, because we bluffed a lot.’
Ironically for a team nicknamed the Aces, Mulberry Grove did play the bad hand it was dealt to near perfection.
With Crandell out, Barnes turned to Brewer, a slugging first baseman with no varsity pitching experience.
But the soft-tossing senior made her coach look brilliant by more than holding her own, thanks in large part to the tutoring of a revered pitching coach and Barnes’ shrewd defensive shifts.
‘Kids just don’t hit to the opposite field,’ said Barnes, who aligned his defenders to take away the left side of the field. ‘We exploited that.’
Barnes was also happy to exploit the services of Brian Gallagher, a Salem-based fastpitch guru who offered his knowledge when Crandell got hurt.
‘He taught me more than the kids,’ Barnes said. ‘He drove from Salem once a week to coach the kids and didn’t ask for a dime. That guy was gold.’
With the storm sufficiently weathered by midseason, Barnes handed the pitching baton to another Brewer – Rachel’s younger sister, Joanna.
The move might have seemed risky, at best, considering she was just a freshman. But Barnes knew what he had in the youngest of the three Brewers he’s coached, due to Joanna’s participation in his wildly popular and successful junior high and summer-league programs.
Thanks in large part to the experience gained there, Brewer performed more like a senior than a freshman, finishing 9-3. She was at her best when the pressure was on, picking up complete-game victories in the Valmeyer Regional title game and the semifinals of the Raymond-Lincolnwood Sectional.
But, as has been the case since Barnes took over the program eight years ago, much of the Lady Aces’ success can be attributed to its relentless offense that averaged eight runs and 12 hits per game.
No Mulberry Grove regular hit lower than .333, and the Lady Aces wound up finishing in the top 10 on the IHSA’s all-time single-season list in doubles (4th), extra-base hits (7th) and hits (9th).
It’s probably no coincidence, considering Barnes knows a little something about hitting.
The Du Quoin native still holds his high school’s single-season batting record, and he went on to lead the Midwest in hitting during his junior year at Greenville College.
Still, his path to Mulberry Grove wasn’t always a smooth one. But he’s applied the many lessons learned from his journey to what has become a passion – coaching softball.
Barnes played football in high school for legendary Du Quoin coach Al Martin, suiting up for some teams far less talented than their predecessors and opponents.
Still, those teams helped extend Du Quoin’s amazing run of playoff appearances – and Barnes said it was no accident.
‘You have to have the confidence to figure out a way to win,’ Barnes said. ‘Tradition can win you more games than talent. There were a number of games that we were out-matched, but won. That’s because Al always got the most out of his talent. I try to do that here, too.’
After graduation, Barnes future was clearly in baseball. But despite a .687 average his senior year, a pair of JUCO programs felt his future was on the mound, not the plate.
Barnes disagreed, and it wasn’t until frustrating stints at John A. Logan College and Kaskaskia that he finally got a chance to swing the bat at Greenville College.
Barnes went on to have two successful seasons at GC before serving as the Panthers’ hitting instructor for a couple years. The experience at GC changed his life.
‘(Panthers) coach (Lynn) Carlson believed in me,’ Barnes said. ‘What he taught me is, when you give a kid confidence, sometimes that’s all they need. I will forever be indebted to him for giving me a chance.’
Little did Barnes know, his future was right down the road in a tiny town he’d never heard of.
‘I didn’t even know where it was,’ said Barnes of Mulberry Grove. ‘I didn’t know anything past Greenville Country Club.’
Barnes’ first-ever trip to Mulberry Grove was to interview for a special education teacher position at the school, a job that came with the additional duty of being an assistant for the junior high softball team.
Barnes’ career goal was to become a coach, but he admits softball wasn’t even on his radar.
‘I would have never guessed I’d be coaching softball,’ said Barnes, who accepted the position soon after. ‘But I wouldn’t have it any other way.’
Now, it’d be hard to imagine Barnes not coaching softball with an Aces cap on his head and a scorebook in hand.
The intense and fiery Barnes has been the Lady Aces’ leader for eight years now, compiling a 150-53 record.
Despite that high school success, he seems to take just as much pride developing players at the junior high level. His junior high teams have gone 125-29 during his tenure, and he’s also led the Mulberry Grove Jaguars summer softball program to countless big-time accomplishments, including a state title last summer.
All told, 50 Lady Aces have been all-conference selections since Barnes has been at the helm, six of which were named EIC Player of the Year.
But Barnes is most proud of the fact that he’s watched 24 of his former players earn athletic scholarships.
‘The thing I want to do most is to get the girls to use softball to get an education,’ Barnes said.
Brewer is the latest Lady Ace to move on to the next level, as she has accepted a four-year scholarship from Greenville College. She credits Barnes for getting her there.
‘I think if I’d had any other coach, I wouldn’t have done near as well as I have,’ she said. ‘He just puts everything into it, his heart and soul.
‘I can’t imagine what it’d be like if he wasn’t here.’
Which begs the question: Is it just a matter of time until a bigger school lures Barnes away? According to Barnes, probably not.
Mulberry Grove softball supporters will have to remain faithful that he sticks around. But keeping the faith only comes naturally for the Lady Aces.
‘It is the cornerstone of our program,’ Barnes said, ‘believing in things that shouldn’t happen.’