Fred Kroner: Sages have total package
MONTICELLO — Softball is not a hard game to figure. At the high school level, teams with quality players will do well if one of those players includes a pitcher who can throw strikes.
The velocity of the pitches is not as critical as the ability to place the ball in the strike zone. Few pitchers are so dominant that they won’t yield a few hits over the course of the game.
Those hits do less damage if there are not runners on base who took a free pass.
The next essential element is the ability to catch and field routine balls. Spectacular plays send a buzz through the crowd, but they only count as one out, just like the routine plays.
It comes back to keeping players off base who haven’t legitimately earned their way on.
The final point of emphasis is closely related to the first two. The most successful teams have the ability to throw strikes and make the routine play, not just in the first inning when there’s no score but also in the tension-filled later innings of a tie game or when a comeback is needed.
Monticello is playing at state Friday in the Class 2A IHSA softball semifinals because it has handled the pressure and because it has handled the fundamental details that often are overlooked until they go askew.
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Chrissy Gadbury is the most noticeable because she is the one pitching the majority of the innings (83 percent for the season). Her composure in the face of adversity has been exemplary. In 36 postseason innings, she has walked two and struck out 34. For the season, the veteran right-hander has a ratio of almost 7-to-1 on strikeouts-to-walks.
Clearly, she doesn’t do it alone. By averaging less than a strikeout per inning, she has to rely on her defense to secure more than two-thirds of the outs.
“Our defense is pretty solid,” Monticello coach Courtney Hoffman said. “We have worked on that a lot and feel that defense will keep us in a lot of ballgames.”
The Sages field a veteran group mixed with seniors and juniors. Many are teammates beyond the spring season.
“Our entire infield, except for Allie (Hislope, catcher), all play with each other in the summer,” Hoffman said. “For the most part, I have not made any defensive changes. If I make a pitching change, that affects the defense a little but not much.”
Four consecutive Dupo players tested Monticello third baseman Layne Buzan in Monday’s super-sectional. She handled those attempts flawlessly.
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The Sages have repeatedly demonstrated the ability not to wilt when the game is on the line.
Three of their first five postseason games have ended with one-run victories. Another one was a two-run margin in a game that required 12 innings.
In the team’s regional opener, Emily Chitwood scored the winning run on a hit by Samantha Valentine in the bottom of the seventh inning. Two games later, right fielder Chitwood threw out a runner at the plate to preserve a shutout for the Sages.
The school’s overall softball program is on solid ground. Monticello’s junior varsity team ended its season with a 14-4 record. No varsity regulars were used on the JV unit.
When the prep season ends this weekend, a lot of the team members will keep playing.
“Many kids play travel ball,” Hoffman said. “I have a lot that play with Monticello Magic (all six of the juniors have played on the same Magic team for several years).”
Some (such as Sophie Catlin and Makayla Reedy) have switched to Premier. Hislope has played on a Bloomington-based team, and Jenny Hinton is with a Champaign-based team.
While they are playing, they are becoming more comfortable and knowledgeable in all phases of the game.
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There’s a bit of deja vu for Hoffman as she prepares her team for the school’s first state finals appearance in a bracketed sport. She played in the softball tournament for Williamsville’s 33-6 team as a sophomore in 2000 and had her team’s only hit in a quarterfinal loss.
The opponent was Rock Island Alleman, which went on to finish second in Class 1A. The Alleman head coach was Jay Hatch, and one of his assistants was Mike Ebner.
When the Class 2A teams play at 3 p.m. Friday, Ebner will be the head coach, with Hatch on staff as an assistant.
Hoffman treasures those moments competing with the state’s elite.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said.
It’s a subject she has broached with her teams.
“I always talk about state and what it means to get there,” Hoffman said. “I know what to expect, but I think the girls will be in awe.”
She has had three days to try to get the message across.
“I will prepare them the best that I can,” she said.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s executive sports editor. He writes a high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5235, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.
2A state pairings
At East Peoria
Monticello vs. Rock Island Alleman, 3 p.m.
Teutopolis vs. Beecher, 5:30 p.m.
Third place, 3 p.m.
Championship, 5:30 p.m.