DECATUR – Mount Zion players huddled around coach Greg Blakey, eyes and ears tuned into his rather mundane message.
“Bus at 2:15,” he repeated a couple times, then ended with a simple acknowledgement of team’s performance.
They broke the huddle with a “SECTIONAL CHAMPS” chant, and that was that.
Mount Zion is onto the Mattoon super-sectional Monday after defeating Charleston in its own sectional final, a 5-2 Saturday victory at Millikin University. It’s the Braves’ second-straight sectional title earned by beating the Trojans, an extension of their battle for Apollo Conference supremacy.
“There’s only eight teams left in state now, so I hope they enjoy it, because it’s been fun getting here,” Blakey said.
Indeed, they do not take such an achievement lightly. Charleston pushed them for the Apollo title all season, swept a regular-season doubleheader in 2018, took them to extra-innings in sectionals a year ago and Saturday, tightened up after a sloppy first inning in another close contest.
“It’s one step closer to that big goal, but we do appreciate how we got here,” shortstop Kynzie Wrigley said.
Their goals, though, reach farther into June. Saturday’s game, and subdued mayhem after it, indicated a team with its eyes on an even grander prize, with little doubt in its ability to plow a clean path to it. Not many teams will acknowledge such self-assurance, but Mount Zion is not like many teams. The Braves are stocked with pitchers, a deep lineup with few weaknesses and plenty of bravado.
Mount Zion (30-4-1) set a goal before the year to get back to and improve their standing in the state tournament. Last season, the Braves finished fourth after losing a 16-15 roller-coaster contest to Providence in the third-place game. They’ll face Centralia in Monday’s super-sectional for a trip back to East Peoria, a chance to check off one more box.
But back to how they advanced to Monday.
Once again, Audrey Eades stepped into the circle, the emerged ace of a deep pitching staff fresh off back-to-back shutouts of Rochester and Paris and about a month removed from an 11-strikeout game against Charleston.
This time, the Trojans put a runner on base against Eades in each of the first five innings, but had just one hit with runners in scoring position. It came in the fifth, when Macey McElravey hit a two-out, two-strike triple that turned into a little league home run when she scored on an error.
McElravey roped a line drive down the right field line, disregarding the shift Mount Zion had been playing on her all game. It landed about 100 feet from the right fielder, who was playing in right-center on the shift.
Her triple, though, came with Charleston trailing 4-0, due in large part to a three-run first inning that featured just one hit. Mount Zion’s first two hitters reached on errors, and Wrigley chopped a grounder over first to plate the Braves’ first run. They added two more in the inning on another error and a wild pitch.
“If you don’t spot them three runs, it’s a different game,” Charleston coach Blain Mayhall said. “But those things happen, and even to the best softball players in the world.”
Charleston starter Emily Price settled in afterward. Wrigley ended a streak of seven straight hitters retired by Price with a solo home run in the third inning and finished a triple shy of the cycle. She scored three times.
“She squared it up,” Blakey said. “Price is a good pitcher and didn’t give us a lot of good looks today. But Kynzie’s done a good job of staying on the ball this year and it showed up today.”
Price set down the next eight hitters after Wrigley’s home run before Mount Zion scored again in the sixth. It was an insurance tally, though not that Eades needed it. She retired Charleston in order on 12 pitches.
Teammates mobbed her and each other in the circle, posed for a picture with a plaque commemorating the title, huddled and dispersed.
Time to go onto the next one.
“From the first day, we talked about how this is a process and not a sprint,” Blakey said. “This whole year is a journey and we have to do certain things to get to here. They’ve been very workmanlike as far as their goals and how they’re going to get there. But there’s a little higher thinking than just one game.”