The Mulberry Grove Junior High School softball team enters its second IESA Class A state tournament in six years with what coach John Barnes believes is a healthy mix of confidence and humility.
The Lady Eagles have plenty of reasons to believe they can bring home some hardware as they enter Friday’s 2:30 p.m. quarterfinal against Springfield Christ the King at Champions Field in Normal with a perfect 16-0 record, a lights-out pitcher in Becca Oldham and a potent offensive attack.
But they also have reason not to be over-confident after Saturday’s 8-7 win over Edinburg in the championship game of the Pawnee Sectional.
Mulberry Grove appeared to be rolling to victory in that game, as Oldham was tossing a no-hitter and the Lady Eagles enjoyed an 8-0 lead entering the final inning.
But Edinburg put together a near-miraculous rally, scoring seven runs with two outs before Oldham coaxed a game-ending groundout to second, leaving the potential tying run on third and the go-ahead run on first.
‘I wasn’t smiling when we got the last out,’ Mulberry Grove coach John Barnes said. ‘We had two outs and it was still 8-0. But – and maybe its’ because it happened so fast – I was never worried, because I knew Becca could handle their order. She’d done it all game.’
Edinburg’s rally started when its leadoff hitter in the seventh broke up Oldham’s no-hitter. An error and a walk followed, along with a botched double play in which the Lady Eagles settled for a force out.
Oldham rebounded, retiring the next batter for the second out, but the miscue allowed the top of Edinburg’s order to get another crack at it – and it capitalized, rapping out four straight hits before the Lady Eagles finally recorded the final out.
‘I told them things happen for a reason,’ said Barnes of Edinburg’s valiant last gasp. ‘If we win that game 8-0, and we go through the whole postseason (outscoring our opponents) 23-0, these kids might go up there thinking teams are going to bow down to them. They had to work a little bit there, and the good Lord just gave them enough to scare them. Maybe it was a good lesson.’
A Joliff RBI single in the eighth proved to be the game-winner for Mulberry Grove, which had appeared to break the game open with a four-run fifth.
Oldham helped her own cause by going 3-for-4 with two doubles and an RBI, while Thacker and Joliff each finished 2-for-3 with two RBIs, and Ashlee Stich was 2-for-3 with an RBI. Goodin chipped in two RBI.
With Saturday’s shaky finish behind them, Barnes feels his team is capable of making some noise at state.
‘It’s a big treat just to go,’ Barnes said. ‘But I told the girls, since we’re there, we might as well win a few.
‘Our expectation is to win state, not just to go up there and participate.’
As was the case in 2003, when the Lady Eagles had ace Brittany Crandell, Mulberry Grove can lean Oldham, who’s given up just two earned runs all year.
But Barnes feels the 2008 Lady Eagles are a better all-around team than his 2003 state team.
‘All we rode then was a pitcher’s arm,’ Barnes said. ‘Here, we’ve got hitting and some defense. And the pitching is just as good, if not better, than we had then.
‘It’s a complete team – more complete than it was last time. We’ve just got to hope things fall our way.’
M. Grove 5, Altamont 0
Oldham tossed a four-hit shutout, and Jolliff went 2-for-2 with a double, triple and three RBIs.
Oldham helped her own cause by going 2-for-2, while Stitch was 2-for-3 with an RBI.
Oldham fanned eight and walked three, as Mulberry Grove improved to 15-0 on the season.
M. Grove 10, St. Elmo 0
Oldham threw a one-hitter – striking out nine – and she helped herself with two hits and an RBI.
Jolliff added two hits – including a double – and three RBIs, while Stich was 2-for-4 with two RBIs and Koontz was 2-for-3 with an RBI.