It was a rare thing to see Rock Falls ace hurler Michaela Ward not in the circle against Sterling in a softball game that pitted the rivals against each other earlier this week.
What made it rare for the sport is that there was a time when pretty much every softball team in the Sauk Valley threw the same girl every inning of the season.
Since the IHSA moved the rubber back 3 years ago, the game has evolved.
The first year, the offensive numbers throughout the state exploded. I think Rock Falls slugger Jordan Giddings hit like 11 home runs in one season as freshman.
Over the course of the next 2 years, pitchers and coaches have adjusted. Pitchers have learned how to make their pitches break later.
Coaches learned it doesn’t hurt to have a rotation of arms.
Rock Falls coach Kris Nunez used three pitchers – Julie Dodd, Giddings and Destinee Schumaker – against Sterling. I am pretty sure that is the most softball pitchers I’ve seen one team use in a single game in the 8 years I’ve been here.
Add in the fact that Sterling used a pair of pitchers – Stephanie Kester and Priscilla Aponte – and it’s clear the game has changed.
Which gets me back to Ward.
Nunez didn’t use her, because she’s pretty sure they’ll see the Warriors in a couple of weeks in a regional championship.
Why let the Warriors get the chance to bat against her a couple of times in what essentially was a meaningless game, now that Rock Falls and Sterling are not competing in the same conference?
Save her for the postseason, and take the chance that the Sterling bats might struggle against Ward – as they did a year ago when Ward was a freshman.
This dimension to the game adds murkiness to the prediction waters as we look ahead to the regionals.
It’s a murkiness we are used to with baseball.
I tell people that, of the three major boys team sports – baseball, basketball and football – baseball is the hardest to predict.
Now, at the beginning of most seasons, we are able to say that teams like Rock Falls and Morrison will be good and battle for conference titles.
Even when that has been true, it hasn’t necessarily meant the Rockets and Mustangs made long postseason runs.
On the contrary, sometimes great regular seasons lead to tough matchups in every game of the regional.
Because, much like Nunez did with Ward, teams look ahead to the postseason. They might hide an ace if they face the Rockets or the Mustangs in the regular season, if they think they’ll see them early in a regional.
So, when these top-seeded teams take the field in the regional opener, they see a new pitcher, who probably has pretty good stuff.
On the opposite bench, coaches like Donnie Chappell and Ben Sondgeroth have a tough decision to make themselves.
Do they throw out their top pitcher in the first game of a regional, or do they try and save them for a possible regional championship game?
I’ve seen coaches use various strategies. Sometimes their plan works. Sometimes they spend the postgame speech discussing when to turn in uniforms and when to plan for a postseason banquet.
Every once in awhile, the amazing also happens. Like it did with Erie-Prophetstown a couple years ago, when they were able to seemingly put Eann Cox on the mound anytime they needed outs. It worked all the way to the state tournament.
It’s rare these days to see a kid pitch that much in a short span without losing velocity and control.
I guess at the end of the day, we don’t know what going to happen over the next couple of weeks – but that’s what makes it such a fun way to end the school year.