Playing with the lead has been a common theme the past few seasons for the Milledgeville Missiles softball team. It gets ahead, then turns things over to strong pitching and solid defense to make it stand up.
The formula has worked well: The Missiles have won six regional titles the past eight seasons, including three in a row. They are looking for their third consecutive Class 1A sectional crown Saturday in Dakota.
But things might not be so cut-and-dried against a spunky Orangeville team. The Broncos, led by five freshmen starters, have been known to score late and rally for wins. Case in point: they exploded for eight fifth-inning runs Wednesday in a 13-2 rout of Hiawatha in the sectional semifinals.
“They’re a tough team, but we have to play our game,” Milledgeville junior Morgan Adolph said. “It’s going to take both offense and defense to win, so we have to get going early. If we score some runs and get them playing from behind, it will take the pressure off us and put it on them.”
The reason Milledgeville (24-3) has had so much success with that game plan can be directly related to the girl in the pitching circle. Senior Emily Bush (14-1) has taken over where former star hurler Keali Engelkens left off in 2010: dominating with a steady, consistent mixture of fastballs, riseballs and offspeed junk.
“Most of us are more intimidated by her than any other pitcher,” Orangeville senior Lindsey Robieson was quoted as saying in the Rockford Register Star following the Broncos’ win Wednesday.
But it’s not just Bush’s presence on the mound that makes any Milledgeville run look almost insurmountable. The defense behind the ace is stellar, led by a nearly impenetrable infield and far-ranging outfield.
In fact, Milledgeville beat Orangeville twice already this season, and Bush didn’t pitch in either game.
“I think it’s going to come down to Emily controlling things on the mound, and the defense making the plays behind her,” Milledgeville coach Brad Grenoble said. “Whoever makes the fewest errors will win; one error can really be the difference in a 2-1, 3-2, 4-3 ballgame.”
Grenoble cites his team’s greatest asset as the players’ unwavering belief in each other. Couple the Missiles’ stellar defense with their ability to get the job done at the plate, whether bunting or finding a gap, especially with two outs – “I wish I knew how many two-out RBI hits we’ve had this season,” Grenoble said – and it’s no surprise that the players inherently trust each other.
It’s also not a head-scratcher that these Missiles have a lot of fun on the diamond.
“We play our best when we’re happy,” senior Kelsey Hayen said. “There’s a lot of joking on this team, and that really helps keep us relaxed – and more focused, which doesn’t make sense, but seems to work in our case.”
Last year, the Missiles handled the Broncos in the 1A Eastland Sectional semifinal. Bush struck out six in a one-hitter, and Milledgeville outhit Orangeville 11-1.
But that won’t cause this team to underestimate the Broncos. After taking third in state last year, the Missiles know that all it takes is a hot streak at the right time to make a long run through the playoffs and end up in East Peoria.
And Grenoble, for one, isn’t mistaking youth for inexperience, as all of the Bronco freshmen – Morgan Robb, Morgan Stamm, Miranda Rodebaugh, Tori Clark and Kaylee Sager – are veterans of the ASA circuit and have the talent to make up for their age. They accounted for nine RBIs, including Robb’s five, in Wednesday’s win.
“Their young players are so special they don’t play like freshmen, they have three or four pitchers they can throw at you, and they have two of the better coaches in the state,” Grenoble said. “Every year it seems like they should run short of talent, but it never happens – and those coaches get the most out of their players.”
“You never know how things are going to play out,” Hayen added, “so we have to keep that in mind and be ready to play our best – because they’re going to be playing their best, too.”