Ever since she started her softball career as a pitcher back in 5th grade, Grace Elwood has always appreciated a team that plays good defense behind her.
Nothing has changed now that Elwood is a sophomore who’s a part of a three-pitcher rotation for the Wildkit varsity this spring. Stellar defense behind the right-hander allowed the Wildkits to stretch their winning string to 5 games in a row Thursday when they topped visiting Glenbrook South 3-1 in Central Suburban League South division play.
Elwood’s batterymate, catcher Meg Eisfelder, threw out two runners attempting to steal and picked off another and helped Elwood faced just 2 batters over the minimum over the last 5 innings of her complete game victory. She tossed a 5-hitter and struck out 2.
Evanston improved to 12-5 overall, 6-1 in league play, and remains just one game behind league leader New Trier in the pennant chase. GBS dropped to 4-11 and 3-4, respectively.
“I’ve always had good team defense behind me, even last year on the JV team. That was a wonderful team, too,” Elwood said. “That’s important for me because that’s what gives me the confidence I need out there. Pitching is not always about striking out people and that’s something I think I’ve learned this year. I’m the kind of pitcher who tries to give the defense easy plays to make.
“The pressure is something that can always get to you and that’s why you have to have confidence out there. I have confidence in our defense, and I think this year I’ve been able to identify the fact that I need a mindset where I’m focused for every game. My pre-game (preparation) has to be solid, too, and I think that’s one thing that’s improved for me since last year.”
Evanston did commit two errors Thursday — both of them by sophomore shortstop Caroline Job — but Job also pulled off a big play when she threw out a Titan runner at the plate with the game tied at 1-1 in the 2nd inning. Job also started a short-to-first-to-third double play to end the 4th, erasing one of the errors she made.
The Wildkits are at a point now where they don’t let one mistake lead to repeated miscues and big innings for their opponents. It sound simple — but it isn’t.
“I keep stressing the camaraderie to them, that you can’t take it personal, that it’s OK when they redirect each other and move on to the next play,” said head coach Katie Perkins. “If they take it personal out there, they’re not going to maximize their ability.
“We made the spectacular plays at the beginning of the season, but we struggled to make the routine plays. We’ve been hammering that at them in practice and now our errors are way down.”
While the Wildkits made the plays they needed to make, GBS pitcher Sophie Stark didn’t. After walking the bases full with no outs in the 4th, Stark knocked down a comeback grounder to the circle hit by Kate Parcell but opted to throw her out at first base as the go-ahead run crossed the plate.
The next Evanston hitter, Hannah Schaps, also hit a routine grounder back to Stark — who again threw to first as Gina Hopf scored an insurance run.
The winners only mustered three total hits, scoring their other run in the first when leadoff hitter Eisfelder whacked a double and came around to score on an infield out and a passed ball.
GBS had Elwood on the ropes early, but Eisfelder nailed Casey Coletta straying off first base to cut off a rally in the 1st, and Job’s throw to the plate in the 2nd limited the damage the visitors could do in the 2nd.
Elwood’s performance was crucial, and not just to keep the ETHS win streak alive. The sophomore will have to assume more of the burden in the circle — along with junior Zoe Kurtzer — after Jaden Janzen went to the sidelines with a broken bone in her non-pitching hand. The trio had divided the rotation duties evenly, with Janzen also playing first base and serving as a designated player when it wasn’t her turn to pitch.
Then again, a burden like that shouldn’t phase Elwood, who threw every inning for the JV team last spring after Kurtzer moved up to the varsity on April 1 of 2015.
“I’ve played on travel teams with Zoe and Jaden for a long time and I know they’re both great,” Elwood said. “Jaden’s a really good hitter for us, too, and she’ll really be missed.”
“Now is the time for the other two to step up,” said Perkins. “I know Grace is hungry, a kid who wants to win and wants to succeed. She wants to make herself better and I think she can be a huge, driving force for us moving through her career from here.
“She has more control over her pitches this year — and she has more pitches to throw, too. The pitchers’ job is not to throw strikeout after strikeout, it’s to throw balls the other teams can put in play and let their teammates do the work behind them.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.