MOUNT ZION — Hours after Monday's supersectional win, Greg Blakey sat in his home with his coaching staff and tried to devise a plan.
Maybe when the Braves arrived to EastSide Centre for the first state softball appearance in school history, Blakey, Mount Zion's coach, would pull a trick out of the movie "Hoosiers."
Perhaps he would take a tape measure, plant one end at home plate and walk down the first base line to prove the bases are the exact distance apart as every other softball field his team has played on this season.
He may even just keep it simple and tell the Braves it's the same game they've played all year, but at a new venue.
This weekend will present an opportunity that Blakey hasn't been afforded in his 27-year career.
When Mount Zion closed out a 2-1 victory over Centralia in Monday's Class 3A supersectional, he embraced his coaching staff for a long hug at the door of the dugout as his team flooded into the dirt to celebrate.
After years of shortcomings and balls that narrowly found outfield green against his defense — and balls that didn't off his team's bats — Blakey will make his first appearance at the state tournament when the Braves play Lombard Montini at 12:30 p.m. Friday in the state semifinals.
Blakey will tow with him a 661-271 record that includes near-misses and great teams that have simply run into greater teams.
Teams like the 1999 team that was tied 1-1 with Casey-Westfield in the sectional championship — when eight teams advanced to state in each class — entering the bottom of the sixth inning only to have an "avalanche" hit, eliminating the Braves by the 10-run rule.
And the 2004 team that was undefeated in the regular season, only to lose in the sectionals to Bloomington 1-0.
“Up until this point, that may have been the best team I ever had," Blakey said of the 2004 squad. "We had some great teams, and have been in the super before and to the sectional championship game a couple times.
“All those kind of play in the back of your mind and you hang on them. They all eat at you a little bit because unfortunately we remember the losses more than we do the wins."
At the beginning of every year, though, Blakey once again had plans to advance to state.
“You go into every year thinking it’s going to happen," he said. "I always tell people you never go into a game thinking you’re going to lose. That’s not my mindset. But I thought this group was really a year away from being able to do something because we were so young.
“My mindset is we’re winning every game and we’re going as far as we can go until somebody stops us. I never had that thought that I would never get there."
The most recent team to sniff this close to the state tournament was in 2011.
Rachel Huggins was on that team, which lost to Bethalto Civic Memorial 5-1 in the supersectionals. Huggins went on to play at Bradley University, where she is now an assistant coach. She couldn't help but text her former coach on Tuesday.
“There is no one else I could think of who is more deserving of these moments than him — he puts everything into his teams," Huggins said. “He really has no offseason. Those teams are like his family."
For many during Blakey's tenure, he's been the only coach they've ever known until they went to play at the college level.
"He coached me when I was in grade school, when I was in junior high and when I was in high school," Huggins said. "Really when I associated softball, I associated coach Blakey. It was a testament to what he had taught me throughout my lifetime."
Blakey is still processing his first state trip, and trying to find time to answer the countless text messages and phone calls he was getting from people reaching out.
One that stuck out was from Charleston softball coach Blain Mayhall, whose team Mount Zion defeated Saturday in the sectional championship: "Congratulations to your girls. Know I’m rooting for them this weekend. Best of luck."
"It’s people like him, that after you beat them, they’re rooting for you — that’s humbling," Blakey said.
The breakthrough to state hearkens memories of another Apollo Conference coach — Dave McDowell, who coached at Mattoon from 1981-2009 and broke through to state in his 26th season.
Though McDowell didn't much consider the similarities between he and Blakey, he's been rooting for the Braves since they knocked Mattoon out in the regional finals this year.
“When we look to the state series, of course when you’re not in it as a team, and Mattoon wasn’t, then you want somebody from your conference and from your area to go on," McDowell said.
“All I can say at this point is we hope they go ahead and culminate the activity by finishing off as high as they can get."
McDowell can relate to the years that came within an arm's length of state. But those aren't indicative of the respective programs they helped build.
“The best part is that they’re now getting an opportunity to go on," McDowell said. "With that, I’m really pleased for Blakey because he’s worked at it for a long time just like we did. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t successful by not going further into the state, it just means that there are different times where you can be more successful than others."
This run was on the edge of not happening.
In 2008, Blakey missed all but five innings of his oldest daughter Meghan's games as a junior at Okaw Valley, and his oldest son, Kyle, was about to see substantial time on varsity as a sophomore.
Blakey beat himself up over missing those games and was on the verge of stepping away from coaching.
“I didn’t want to be a parent who missed all their kids' stuff because of me coaching," he said. "I would have felt bad. The kids say they wouldn’t have felt bad but they would have."
But with the backing of then-Mount Zion Superintendent Darbe Brinkoetter and then-principal, now assistant coach, Greg Bradley, Blakey was able to make nearly all of their games the following year.
Both Meghan and Kyle will be in attendance this weekend.
“The older two are the ones I missed maybe 80 percent of their games because baseball and softball play at the same time," Blakey said. "It will be kind of cool for them to be there.”
Finally, after this weekend, Blakey will be able to reflect on this season and the ride to the state finals, and appreciate that he returns all but two players next year.
“When I came to Mount Zion, I came from Eastern Illinois University as an assistant and I thought I would be here for a year or two and I would go on to bigger and better things," Blakey said.
"I haven’t left. This has been a great place to coach and there’s always been great support from the community. The kids have bought in, thank goodness, for the past 27 years."
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