Molly Chambers’ presence in the circle is one reason she’s become the go-to pitcher on the Evanston softball team this spring.
And the freshman doesn’t swing a bad bat, either.
Chambers socked her first varsity home run Wednesday and struck out a season-high 11 in five and two-thirds inning in relief to help rally the Wildkits to a 4-3 non-conference triumph over Chicago Taft at the ETHS field.
Every appearance Chambers makes in the circle helps solidify head coach Katie Perkins’ decision to promote the hard-throwing right-hander to the varsity, even with three other experienced pitchers returning this year. Now Chambers leads the squad in victories, innings pitched and strikeouts and her effort Wednesday pushed the Wildkits 10 games over the .500 mark at 15-5.
“Molly is the kid who you clear the snow off for a space for her to work with in the backyard in December, that’s how hard she works,” said Perkins. “That’s how dedicated she is. She’s the kind of kid who’s all business out there and there’s no fooling around. She has a presence.
“She’s worked with some high level pitching instructors since she was young, and she’s got that competitive edge working for her. No matter the level of the competition she faces, she’s going to rise to the occasion. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.”
Joining a staff that includes returning all-conference selection Grace Elwood, a junior, and senior veterans Jaden Janzen and Zoe Kurtzer was a promotion that Chambers embraced. And she said the thought of exactly how many innings she’d actually get to pitch never crossed her mind.
“I was part of a 4-pitcher staff in summer travel ball (with the Illinois Chill), so I knew I’d have to work for my spot,” said the freshman righty. “I knew I’d get to pitch, but I didn’t know how much. I was excited about the opportunity because it gives everyone a chance to work together, and complement each other.
“We work against each other — to make each other better. I’ve really learned a lot so far. Grace has been a huge help to me, and so have Jaden and Zoe. I think we have a good competition going. I know that if I go out and do my best, they’re going to back me up. And as Coach Roney (pitching coach Shannon) says, if you get in a game and you’re not at your best, we don’t have to leave you in to suffer.”
That was the scenario Wednesday, as starter Janzen struggled and surrendered three runs, three hits, three wild pitches and a pair of walks before Chambers replaced her with one out in the second inning.
Chambers didn’t have a “clean” 1-2-3 inning until the seventh, but fanned 11 of the 22 batters she faced. She scattered four singles, one of them a bunt to the first batter she faced, Amaya Gonzalez. In the sixth, after Evanston had regained the lead at 4-3, Chambers zipped a called third strike past Gonzalez with the potential tying run at second base.
After banging out three hits the previous day in a win over Glenbrook South, Chambers earned the start at designated player and homered to center field on a 1-1 pitch from Taft’s Amy Steibling leading off the ETHS second. She also had an RBI single when the Wildkits staged a three-run rally in their half of the fourth.
“I didn’t get the opportunity to hit much in summer ball because they always used the best 9 hitters in the lineup,” Chambers pointed out. “And they (the ETHS coaching staff) did hit for me when I pitched earlier in the year. But Coach Perkins kept telling me how much she believed in me and that helped me break through and start putting the bat to the ball. Now I have a coach who believes in me and that’s really awesome! I really appreciate that.
“I’ve worked with Tori Nyberg (former Stanford standout) and Eileen Canney (former Northwestern hurler), and this is my first year working with Coach Roney. She’s been awesome and she’s helped me work a lot on my curve ball. I feel I’ve really been able to develop that pitch this year, one I didn’t have before. I’ve had some rough patches this year, but now I believe in myself because I know my team believes in me.”
Janzen played a big role in Evanston’s comeback win after switching over to third base and remaining in the game. After Meg Eisfelder led off the fourth with a single, just the second hit of the game for the hosts, Janzen was able to execute a bunt on an 0-2 pitch and kept the inning alive when the Eagles tried for a forceout at second base and all hands were safe.
Chambers followed with an RBI single that cut the deficit to 3-2. A bunt moved Janzen to third base, and she scored from that on what has to be the shortest sacrifice fly in program history.
Pinch-hitter Kendra Klamm hit a foul ball 10 feet short of the bag at first base which Taft’s Ariana Rivota grabbed for the second out. But pitcher Steibling and catcher Jae Bonas left home plate uncovered, and Janzen alertly dashed home with the tying run.
A single by Lanai Mills plated Chambers with what turned out to be the game-winning run.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.