MOUNT ZION — Combining one dominant hitter, solid fielding and timely hitting can send a high school softball team a long way.
Two strong pitchers and the same ingredients can send a team even further in the postseason. Three pitchers? Keep your schedule open at the end of May and into early June.
Four dominant pitchers?
“Unheard of," Mount Zion coach Greg Blakey said.
But that's exactly where Blakey and his team are midway through the season. His quartet of Audrey Eades, Olivia Gilman, Ally Bruner and Chayse Ramey have the Braves in position to go back to the EastSide Centre in East Peoria after finishing fourth place in Class 3A last season.
It's Blakey's own version of the 1971 Baltimore Orioles, which had four 20-game winners in Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, Jim Palmer and Dave McNally. Blakey is a veteran of the softball craft. He knows lightning won't strike twice in terms of having a group of strong pitchers like he has this season.
“It doesn’t happen," Blakey said. "If you have one great pitcher, you’re probably pretty lucky. If you have two pretty good ones, man, you’re even luckier yet. We have four. That’s a blessing that doesn’t happen very often. I may not see it the rest of my time here.
“We’ve never had four this good. There are a couple years where we’ve had three really good ones, but never four."
Gilman hasn't allowed an earned run in 14 innings pitched this season and has recorded 13 strikeouts; Ramey has a 0.35 ERA in 20 innings with 27 Ks; Eades' ERA sat at 1.62 in 21.2 innings with 23 punchouts before her win against St. Joseph-Ogden on Wednesday; and Bruner has a 3.10 ERA in 20.1 innings and has recorded 27 strikeouts.
Collectively, before Wednesday's game, they'd walked 23 batters to 90 strikeouts and had allowed just 15 earned runs in 76 innings pitched. The Braves have allowed more than three runs just three times in 14 games this season. Last year, the Braves allowed five or more runs 18 times in 39 games.
"If somebody isn’t on her A-game that day, we have three other pitchers who can come in and help us," Bruner said.
Last season, though, Blakey didn't have this kind of depth to his rotation and bullpen. Eades and Gilman pitched a bulk of the innings down the stretch of the season and en route to the state tournament. Bruner, a University of Tennessee-Martin-signee, didn't pitch the back half of the year after being hit with a line drive off the bat of a Stanford Olympia batter on April 21. Ramey pitched just nine innings in the regular season after fighting an illness all year.
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That left Eades and Gilman to grow up in a hurry and pitch in big moments for the Braves. Eades' pièce de résistance came in a super-sectional win against Centralia, allowing 12 hits and one earned run with two walks to advance to state. She's no longer the new kid on the block. She's worked with her parents and coaching staff to hone her game.
“This year I feel on top and I feel like everyone knows me and I’m out there to play my game and get my team where it needs to be," Eades said.
Eades and Gilman pitched in both games in East Peoria and Ramey pitched in the third-place game.
"I think they’ve all grown a lot and they’re all stronger," said Bruner, who now wears a mask but otherwise has no nerves and feels no ill effects of last year's injury.
Blakey knew he would have a deep pitching staff to complement a veteran, experienced group that has Division I-bound and college-bound players sprinkled around the field to go along with reigning Macon County Player of the Year and Illinois State University signee Dayna Kennedy. He even thought last season's team was a year away from making a splash at state, but saw his team grow up in a hurry.
The pitchers came back this season with better drop pitches, improved change-ups, higher velocity and more precise command. All those, combined with experience, has lead to a powerful group.
“Maturity," Blakey said of the biggest changes. "That’s the big thing. Audrey is a junior now, Olivia is a senior and they’re a little battle tested. They know they can do it and they’ve had some success, which is a big thing."
Bruner, who was off to a fast start last season, hasn't missed a beat since jumping back in the circle.
“When she got hit, she was throwing a great game against Stanford Olympia and throwing well to that point," Blakey said. "She’s really picked up where she left off and got a little better."
Gilman has a pretty simple scouting report of the pitchers: Eades and Ramey bring the heat and her and Bruner offset that and keep the hitters off-balance. It creates a perfect symmetry.
“I think it’s good that our bench is so deep and he rotates us as much as he does,"Gilman said. "We each get a decent amount of playing time."