Tigers showing signs of promising future
URBANA — It was one game out of the 35 Urbana's Tigers have played during this softball season.
Yet Monday's Class 3A regional opener easily mirrored the season: Down, but not out.
Before Urbana batted against visiting rival Champaign Central — before even recording an out — the Tigers were in need of a comeback.
Central's Claire Johnson laced a two-run, first-inning double to give the Maroons the early advantage, but the position is one the Tigers have gotten to know all too well.
They were successful Monday, as they have been late in the season during a winning streak which reached six games after dispatching Central 30-7.
The win was the 13th of the season for Urbana, which has won more games than that just once in the past 16 years.
Even during a midseason losing streak, Urbana coach Brad Lovett had the feeling a turnaround was in the works.
"The girls don't get down on themselves," Lovett said. "Games we lost, we weren't striking out a lot. I said, 'Keep hitting and eventually they'll start dropping.'"
The first three hitters in the Urbana lineup were virtually unstoppable against the Maroons. Through three innings, the trio of Ellen Beverly, Tess Allen and Jessa Johnson was 13 for 14 with 15 RBI.
"In the past, we'd get anxious, but today we were disciplined and had some nice line drives hit," Lovett said.
Beverly and Allen each had a single, double and triple. Urbana (13-22) put up nine first-inning runs to take the lead for good. Molly Harmon's single drove in Johnson with the run that broke a 2-2 tie. Besides Beverly, Allen and Johnson, other Tigers with at least four hits were Chelsea Skinner and Kelsea Bishop.
Three players shared the pitching for the Tigers. All are left-handers and all are freshmen or sophomores.
The emergence of sophomore starter Jessica Kearns (10-11) is one reason for the Tigers' late-season surge.
"She had knee surgery and was out about a year," Lovett said. "Her control is starting to get back."
As Kearns pitched more innings, Beverly was returned to shortstop.
"Defense has been our downfall," Lovett said, "but with Ellen at shortstop, it gives us a better defensive lineup."
Three seniors started against Central — Allen in center field, Harmon at first base and Johnson at catcher — and Lovett likes what's in store for the future. For six years, he has taken an active role with the summer program — which this year will add a 10-and-under squad — and he will be the middle school softball coach next year.
"It's nice getting the girls at a young age interested," he said.
What's even better is how they maintain that interest.
When incoming freshmen were surveyed about their possible sports for the future, Lovett found that softball is a popular choice.
"Thirty nine said they were interested and 34 of those were softball-only," Lovett said.
Urbana's pitchers yielded 10 hits, three by Johnson and two apiece by Ellie Knox, Alayna Motley and Fiona Kimble.
The fourth-seeded Tigers return to action on Wednesday in the first game of a sectional semifinal doubleheader at Rantoul's Wabash Park. Urbana will face top-seeded Mahomet-Seymour, the defending regional champs, at 4;30 p.m.
Lovett is glad to have another practice before the first pitch is thrown. Coming off a 29-hit performance, he'll still focus on batting during today's workout.
"We'll set the pitching machine fast and go from there," he said.