DECATUR — Audrey Eades never showed a sign of vulnerability, even when danger was staring her in the face, begging to break her.
By this point, the Mount Zion junior pitcher is a seasoned veteran. Pick a big game, she's pitched in it. Thursday's Class 3A Mount Zion Sectional semifinal game against Rochester played at Workman Family Softball Field on the campus of Millikin was no different.
Rochester threatened to take down Mount Zion, putting a screeching halt on their postseason plans to go back to the state final four. Eades didn't blink. Instead she painted the corners of the strike zone time and time again, sending the Rockets' bats flailing in the process.
By the end of the game, the canvas looked more like a masterpiece. Eades struck out 12 batters in seven innings, allowing one walk and two hits while dodging four errors behind her in a 3-0 win against Rochester to advance to Saturday's sectional championship against Charleston. The game will be played at 11 a.m. at Workman Family Softball Field at Millikin.
Eades walked around the pitcher's circle with confidence and a swagger about her.
“My head tells me to loosen up," she said. "I have it all under control. It’s just me. I go out there and do my thing."
The game began on Wednesday night, where Eades first started putting the brushstrokes on the canvas. The first two Rochester (28-4) batters reached, one by a walk and one by an error. The Rockets had runners on second and third with no outs. Eades, though, struck out the next three batters to end the inning.
“I told myself that we could get out of this," Eades said. "It was just a mental mistake and we would come back at it."
On Thursday, trouble persisted. Rochester leadoff hitter Jillian Anderson lined a double down the third-base line and No. 2 hitter Kelsey Tinder reached on an error and later stole second. It was the same situation: Runners on second and third no outs. Eades retired Rochester pitcher Reagan Miles with a strikeout, induced a groundout on a bunt attempt by Kailyn Whaley for an out and struck out Dharby Tieman.
“She definitely threw super hard," Rochester coach Lindsay Howard said. "She’s the fastest person we’ve seen all year, then she can throw that change (up), too, for a strike. She keeps you off balance. If you have somebody throwing that hard, it’s hard to get those bats going."
The Rockets got a leadoff single by Miles in the sixth and pinch runner Maci Calvert ended up on second with no outs. Two strikeouts and a groundout later, Eades was out of the jam.
“Basically we just jumped on her back and rode her," Mount Zion coach Greg Blakey said. "She did a good job of bailing us out of two big innings there. You could see her kind of find that extra gear. Great pitchers all have that extra gear in them somewhere."
All the while, Eades and Mount Zion (28-4-1) were clinging to a one-run lead delivered by Kynzie Wrigley on Wednesday night before the game was postponed. Wrigley drove in Dayna Kennedy with an opposite-field bloop double in the bottom of the first inning. In fact, that was the only blemish on Miles' résumé. She threw six innings, allowing four hits and two walks while striking out 10.
That was until Mount Zion No. 7 hitter Stephanie Hurm came to the plate in the bottom of the sixth with bases loaded and shot a seeing-eye single just out of the reach of Tinder, the Rochester shortstop, scoring a pair of runs to give Eades some breathing room.
“I feel like it helped everyone sink in more to the game and not worry about making mistakes," Hurm said. "We had more cushion."
The additional run support was helpful, but not all that necessary for Eades who sat down the Nos. 7-9 batters in order in the top of the seventh to end the game.
“It made me feel a little bit better, but I knew I was going to get the next three batters out right then and there," she said.
The rest of the game was powered by Eades. She entered the game on a mission. She struck out 11 in the first game of a doubleheader sweep of Charleston on May 7. Eades, though, thought it was 12. That was her goal on Thursday, to beat her total against Charleston, which she did.
"I came in here strong thinking: I am owning this team. I am getting it," she said.
Next up is Charleston, the next stop in the Braves' postseason tour, that they hope wraps through the Mattoon super-sectional on Monday and to East Peoria next weekend. The two-game sweep of the Trojans is in the past.
“We beat them in regular season, but to us the regular season doesn’t really mean anything anymore," Hurm said. "We need to come in thinking we’ve never played them before and we need to knock them out."