Rick Henderson, with all his softball savvy, says he wishes he could see the game as clearly as Karlie Mellott. That's what makes the Sterling shortstop's inability to dissect Milledgeville ace Emily Bush so impressive.
"From the outside looking in, how dominating you are on the mound, you would never realize what's behind and what's going on inside," Mellott said to Bush in the Sterling dugout Wednesday afternoon. "It's an amazing accomplishment to be able to do that. It's phenomenal."
The pronouns refer to Bush pitching through ongoing health issues stemming from her appendectomy about a year and a half ago. Any day could be a bad day, the worst ones riddled with stabbing pain in her side.
But she pushed through it, leading the Missiles to their first 1A state title. Mellott watched as much of it as she could, but her Golden Warriors were making a run of their own at the 3A state title. Two one-run losses meant settling for fourth place.
But Sterling put its first state tournament trophy in the case, and Bush and Mellott took turns discussing why the SVM staff couldn't help but name them co-players of the year.
"I think that Karlie deserves it as well," Bush said. "She's a very smart batter and a great shortstop, and obviously you guys couldn't just pick one."
"It's great company," Mellott said. "It's such an honor, to represent our area like this."
Insert nickname here
"The Machine" is not just a nickname for Albert Pujols anymore. It's also how Sterling Schools Foundation director Jim Spencer refers to the Golden Warriors' shortstop.
"You just watch her on deck and what she's doing…she could probably coach me," Henderson said.
How about "The Scientist"? Maybe that's a better moniker for the slick-fielding shortstop who battles pitchers into submission.
"It's a science with her, but you also gotta get in and do the work in the lab, and she does that, for sure," Henderson said. "You just wonder what's going on in there. That's why I tell her, 'Tell everyone what you're thinking. They can take or leave your advice. But tell them what you're seeing.'
"I'd love to see the game that clearly."
Good luck trying to blur her vision. After two strikeouts against Alton Marquette's Alexis Silkwood – one of the best pitchers who will ever toe the pitching plate at EastSide Centre – in the 3A semifinal game, Mellott crushed an offering from the southpaw about 300 feet to dead right to lead off the seventh inning. It turned a 3-1 game into a 3-2 nail-biter of a loss.
"A lot of people don't expect that from left-handed batters, to have that kind of power behind your swing," said Bush, who watched the bomb online.
Those who don't read the scouting report play right into Mellott's trap.
"I get to play with the defense a little bit," Mellott said. "Maybe run through a couple, drop a drag bunt, and then swing for power."
"I don't know what you do against her," Henderson said. "She's amazing."
But if she were allowed to give herself a nickname, Mellott might go with something like "Underdog." When she was 8 and Emily was 9, they played on the same team, the Firebirds. That began a pattern of Mellott always playing against kids who were bigger and perceivably stronger than her.
While she doesn't vividly remember her only heads-up matchup with Bush a few years ago, she recalls feeling like David as he waited for the chance to knock the stone back at Goliath.
"I just remember her always being bigger than me and stronger," Mellott said. "She's always moved the ball well. Good pitcher, fast, tough to hit. That's mostly what I remember."
But that was hundreds of games ago.
"I think we're both at the level where you've seen great pitching, and you've seen great players," Mellott said. "You almost expect that. When I face a good pitcher, it gives me more motivation. You know what? This kid's good. I'm gonna hit the ball. That's kind of the driving force with me. If there's a good challenge? Bring it on. Bring it on."
Mellott being a lefty provides a test in and of itself. But her vigilance is what sets her apart.
"She battles," Bush said. "That's something a pitcher doesn't want, is to throw a lot of pitches."
"Off a good pitcher, you have to battle," Mellott said. "You have to battle and fight off their pitches, their moving pitches. [Bush] moves the ball really well to all quadrants. You have to find that one pitch that might be a little off and try to drive it."
Won't back down
Neither SVM player of the year is crazy about two-out, open-base situations.
Bush wrinkles her nose at the thought of giving a batter a free pass.
"Ugh, no, I hate that," Bush said. "As a pitcher, you never just want to put someone on base."
That's why she had to be grinding her teeth when Grenoble visited the mound during the state semifinal. She'd already issued a walk to Jaycee Johnson to prevent the slugging lefty from doing damage.
"I told Emily, 'Hey, I kind of wanna walk this girl. What do you girls think?'" Grenoble said. "She looked at Courtney [Swalve], they smiled, and Emily said, 'I wanna get her right now.'"
But Bush admits certain situations call for a free pass.
"It depends on what the score is, of course," she said. "If you're up by a bunch of runs, you might try and pitch to them. If it's 0-0 or a one-run game, you might give her the base."
Similarly, Mellott is cognizant of her role when a pitcher is putting her on, however intentional the process might be.
"If there's a way on, you find it – if it's a walk, a hit by pitch or a single up the middle – you find it," Mellott said. "Obviously you always want to drive the runs in. That's the position you want to be in. But if it's not there, it's not there."
Strength in numbers
One last glimpse at the last few months ought to warm Sauk Valley residents' hearts. After finishing their dream, the Missiles tried to fuel the Golden Warriors' endeavor by sending them flowers.
"That's so cool," Henderson said, "and we don't get the same thing with Sterling-Rock Falls, because there's just so much personal stuff there."
Whether it be following the Twitter roll, watching the games online or sending flowers, Bush said wearing residence of the Sauk Valley like a badge was a no-brainer.
"Our runs were very similar," Bush said. "We both had a couple of close games and we both came back from behind to win the sectional. I thought that was kind of cool. We came back from behind to win our sectional, and then Sterling turned around and did the same thing a week later."
"It's exciting for the area, to have two teams in the end going to state," Mellott said. "Them winning the championship is just amazing."
With that brand of camaraderie, Henderson was elated with the selections for player of the year.
"You couldn't pick two more perfect people," he said. "The way they dissect the game, and pull for each other…it's perfect."