CHARLESTON – The area near the pitching circle at Karch Field may as well have doubled as a stage Friday, where Charleston players performed their custom handshakes, slick but brief dance moves and leaping shoulder bumps inning after inning as they took the field.
These are the accouterments of success, the swagger that comes with a team that has lost just once all season, is in a charge toward a conference title and having a blast doing it.
“They love being out here and hanging out with each other,” Charleston coach Blain Mayhall said. “That’s what I want. This is supposed to be fun.”
Charleston dusted Effingham twice in a Friday afternoon doubleheader with the help of a merciless offensive attack that, between the two games, produced three straight innings of sending every batter in the lineup to the plate. The Trojans won the first game 11-0 and the second 14-3, both in five innings. They’re now 8-0 in the Apollo Conference and 21-1 overall. They’ll keep enjoying each, but not get too caught up on any specific one.
“I just want them to go out there and compete,” Mayhall said. “Twenty, that’s great, but we’ll move onto that next game and it’s not really a milestone or anything for us. We don’t look at it that way. But it’s exciting and I’m not surprised. I know when they play their best ball they can compete with anyone.”
It seems, though, that Charleston’s best ball is too much for nearly everyone in its path to handle. None of its last six conference games have lasted a full seven innings. Since sweeping Mattoon in a back-and-forth early April doubleheader, Charleston has outscored Apollo opponents 70-8 heading into a May 3 doubleheader at 18-1-1 Mt. Zion, also a rematch of last year's sectional final.
Friday, the Trojans’ two stress-free wins came after three slower innings in which Effingham starter Taylor Armstrong kept them off-balance.
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A 1-0 lead turned into a shortened contest soon after when Charleston blew the game open with 10 runs in the fourth inning. Ava Stephens sent a ground ball into left field to drive in two, Macey McElravy plated two runs with a single to center (one scored on a resulting error) and Kennedy Fellers drove in two more with a double into right-center. This was a display of stringing hits together and finding gaps, slowly deflating Effingham’s hopes.
“We did a good job waiting back, keeping hands back and really adjusting,” Mayhall said. “It took us a few innings, but we started to hit the ball hard. The second game, same thing, and we were really patient.”
Charleston opened the back end of the doubleheader by scoring seven runs before making an out. Its first five hitters reached via a hit or a walk. Emily Price’s bases-loaded fielder’s choice appeared to be the first out, but a throwing error allowed McElravy to score. It began a steady stream of close plays at home in which Charleston dared Effingham to throw them out.
Two of those first-inning runs in the second game scored on one wild pitch. Two more scored on Stephens’ single, with Ashlynn McPeak’s acrobatic slide to avoid a tag accounting for the second run. Effingham threw out Stephens at home when she tried to score on a throw from home to second on a stolen base. It was the Hearts’ only successful out recorded on a play at home, a product of aggressiveness Mayhall had wanted to see.
“I was pleased with how they were picking me up, taking extra bases,” Mayhall said. “One complaint I’ve had, and I know this is me nitpicking, but I feel like we need to be more aggressive on the basepaths. It’s something I’ve tried to stress it and they’re starting to get it. They’re listening and trying to do that.”
Charleston scored three more runs in the second inning and sent all nine hitters to the plate in a frame that began with two straight outs. Ramsey Armstrong’s three-run homer capped a four-run fifth that gave Charleston the necessary 10-run margin to end the game after five innings.
Price and Dee Campbell combined to allow two earned runs and picked up a win as the starting pitcher. Price started the first game, with Campbell pitching the second. Each relieved the other for the final inning.