Villa Grove delivers on potential

Villa Grove delivers on potential

CHAMPAIGN — Big crowds and meaningful postseason games don't seem to faze the Villa Grove softball team.

At least on the surface.

"The first couple innings, they kept saying, 'We're so nervous, we're so nervous,'" Villa Grove coach Jeana Block said of her talented team after the Blue Devils beat Fisher 3-2 on Wednesday in a Class 1A sectional semifinal game at St. Thomas More to set up today's 10 a.m. sectional championship game against Salt Fork. "We just needed to relax and play."

Villa Grove (23-12) heeded Blocks' advice and is only two wins away from making its first-ever state tournament appearance.

Salt Fork (23-6) stands in the way for Villa Grove, with the Storm also never having reached the state tournament.

But for the Blue Devils, reaching this point in their high school careers was, well, pretty much expected.

Villa Grove won the Class A state softball championship at the junior-high level in 2015 and reached the state tournament again in 2016 before losing in the state quarterfinals.

So for juniors like shortstop Reagan Cheely, pitcher Jordyn Ray and catcher Maris Eversole, along with some of their other teammates, today's sectional title game is a result of their continued efforts.

"We've been with this same group for so long," Eversole said. "We've been in stressful positions before. Having all that experience, it kind of cracks the nerves a little bit because we've been in these situations so often it seems. The big crowds and expectations, we're kind of used to it."

Ray echoed Eversole's sentiment."It's because we've been playing so long as a group together," Ray said. "We know what to expect."

The winner of today's game advances to Monday's super-sectional game, slated for 11 a.m. at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. Villa Grove or Salt Fork will face St. Bede (19-7), after the Peru-based private school defeated Ottawa Marquette 7-1 on Thursday to win a sectional title in Shabbona.

Since the four-class system went into effect in 2008, four area teams have reached the 1A state semifinals: Schlarman in 2011, Tuscola in 2012, Fisher in 2016 and Argenta-Oreana in 2018.

Ken Ingold, who coached Fisher to a fourth-place finish three years ago, said he seems similarities between the current Villa Grove team and the Fisher team that played at the EastSide Centre in East Peoria in 2016.

"I'm not saying I'm rooting for anybody (on Saturday), but Villa Grove definitely has a shot to get all the way to East Peoria," Ingold said. "They remind me a little bit of our team in 2016 where we had a great combination of a couple of pitchers, good defense and solid hitting. I wish them all the best."

Ingold, whose team didn't play Salt Fork this season, said he envisions today's championship game at St. Thomas More as "evenly-matched."

"I thought this whole sectional was really evenly-matched," Ingold said. "I think they're both really good. They're solid hitters. They're tough outs. They battle. You're not going to strike out a lot of them. It's going to be a great game."