Unity's freshmen are Wise beyond their years

Unity's freshmen are Wise beyond their years

TOLONO — Four freshmen started on Saturday for Unity's softball team.

Playing in a regional title game — and the subsequent pressure that arises in a win-or-go-home postseason format — might usually lead to a few nerves. A few mistakes. Especially in a close game.

But it seems the Rockets are poised beyond their years after a 3-1 win against Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin on Saturday. That victory helped Unity (26-5) advance to a Class 2A Olympia Sectional semifinal game against Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley (17-7) at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday in Stanford.

Freshman Taylor Henry started in the pitcher's circle and struck out 11 in throwing a two-hitter against BHRA. She also drove in the game's first run on a sacrifice fly to give the Rockets a 1-0 lead in the fifth inning.

Freshman Maddie Reed went 1 for 3 with an RBI single in the sixth inning that extended Unity's lead to 3-0. Reed's run-producing single scored fellow freshman Gracie Renfrow, who went 2 for 3. And freshman Grace Frye also chipped in by going 1 for 2 with a walk.

So the young Rockets can play. That was apparent even before they stepped into high school with Henry, Reed, Renfrow and Frye all contributing to Unity Junior High's eighth-grade team that went 17-0 before losing in the Class AA state quarterfinals.

But it's not just all freshmen who are leading the way this season for Unity.

"We are playing a lot of freshmen, but honestly, it might say a lot about our upperclassmen, too," Unity coach Aimee Davis said. "They're fantastic right now by the way they're leading verbally. We've got a good mix."

Morgan Steinman and Allison Clark are two of the four seniors the Rockets have, along with Kaylee Bailey and Raegen Price. Steinman and Clark started against BHRA, with Steinman the lone senior who has been a part of the program all four years.

"She's won three regional titles in those four years, so that speaks a lot," Davis said. "The four seniors are very valuable members to what they bring to our team, but our program is in good shape right now."

The Rockets will receive a stern test on Tuesday against GCMS junior pitcher Madi Eberle. The Southern Illinois commit carries a 14-7 record and a 1.20 earned run average to go along with an area-best 281 strikeouts and only 31 walks.

Unity defeated Eberle and GCMS once already this season, with the Rockets claiming a 6-4 road win in nine innings on March 26 despite 14 strikeouts from Eberle.

"We're going to gameplan for Eberle, but she's a great pitcher and just as good offensively," Davis said. "We've got to keep playing our game no matter what."

That outcome in Unity's favor was almost two months ago on a chilly Tuesday afternoon in Gibson City. Somewhat warmer temperatures are expected this Tuesday in Stanford, but much more is at stake. Tuesday's winner would meet either St. Joseph-Ogden (22-9) or Olympia (23-7) at 11 a.m. on Saturday in the sectional championship game. SJ-O and Olympia are slated to meet at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

And if Unity wants to get even closer to winning the program's first-ever sectional title, they'll need the freshmen to keep playing beyond their years.

"It's something we've talked about a lot these past few weeks is the target we have right now, and they've had that since they were in junior high," Davis said. "That target has stayed with them this season, so it's really good to see that they can play well under pressure."