MOUNT ZION – There was a point in the season that Greg Blakey knew he needed to switch things up.
Unfortunately, that decision was met with a difficult conversation.
After losing an April 8 doubleheader against Mattoon, the Mount Zion softball coach met with a few of his seniors -- specifically incumbent second-team all-area pitcher Maddie Morgan and fellow pitcher Kamille DiTommaso -- to tell them some of their innings in the circle would be cut back.
In their place, those innings would go to freshman Chayse Ramey and sophomore Ally Bruner. Neither had pitched substantial varsity innings this season.
Bruner was recovering from mononucleosis and was not expected to pitch this season before being cleared in mid-March. Ramey pitched some JV games, but sparingly on varsity.
“It was kind of a shocker for them,” Blakey said. “It's hard when you're a senior and you are losing time to the younger kids. But in the big picture, it was something we had to do and as a coaching staff felt very comfortable doing.”
“It was different, but we worked with it because we knew that he had a plan,” Morgan added.
The plan worked. After the move, the Braves won eight of their next nine games with the lone loss coming against eventual Class 2A state runner-up St. Joseph-Ogden.
Ramey (3.16 ERA) and Bruner (3.32 ERA) combined to go 14-4 with 69 strikeouts down the stretch for the Braves (26-8), who advanced to a Class 3A sectional semifinal before a loss to Chatham Glenwood.
Blakey, the H&R Macon County softball Coach of the Year, didn't have any doubts about going to the underclassmen.
"I felt very comfortable throwing both Chayse and Ally Bruner," Blakey said. "They had thrown very well in bigger games early in the year for us. I had zero problems with it. I think by the end of the year they were our two best pitchers by far.
"They had thrown a little bit against our offense, so we had a pretty good idea. We thought we were a pretty good hitting team. We watched what they did against our hitters so we had a pretty good idea they'd be successful in games."
In fact, the moves also helped Morgan, who finished the season spending most of her time in left field ending with three home runs, 23 RBIs and a .382 batting average.
“I did like playing the outfield a lot more and I think he knew that. He knew when I was pitching I had more stress going on so that would affect my hitting,” Morgan said. “He just had a bold move and put the freshman and sophomore pitchers more in the lead of pitching and put me in the outfield so all of my stress went away. It worked really well with my offense.”
It was more of a season awash with adjustments for Blakey and his staff. Early on, the Braves shuffled players at third base and catcher before Ruby Brown and sophomore Dayna Kennedy took over the respective positions.
Eight games into the season, Blakey had another hurdle to leap. Center fielder Morgan Davis, who will play at the University of South Carolina next season, went down with a season-ending wrist injury.
The Braves plugged in center fielder Isabel Shafer into the position -- and she excelled. The sophomore hit .307 with 19 RBIs to complement her strong defense in center.
“Schafer came in and played well,” Blakey said. “She played fantastic. You couldn't ask for somebody to come in and play a better center field than she did to be completely honest.”
As the roster stabilized, the Braves rolled off wins with streaks of five games, four games (twice) and three games (twice). However, each of those streaks except for one were broken with one-run losses at the hands of Williamsville, Mattoon, Stanford Olympia and Charleston.
Blakey rallied his teams after the losses, winning in each game following a one-run loss. But, the defeats still stung.
“Those are the games we should have won,” Blakey said. “We led in all those games until late. We've got to put people away. The bottom line is we've got to find a little more of a killer instinct in those games for a lack of a better word. Those are the games we have to finish and we stepped off. They were very, very winnable games, I think.”