TINLEY PARK – Junior Alysia Rodriguez did not know she was going to be Joliet West’s regular shortstop until the softball season was about to begin.
Sophomore Kristine Bourg, the incumbent, decided not to play, leaving a hole at the key position. Rodriguez and the rest of the Tigers’ defense went through some early growing pains, but here we are in early June, and West is throwing some leather.
Senior catcher Julia Liceaga has been a constant, with her defense and handling the pitching staff. She did another outstanding job Tuesday, guiding freshman Kiley Robb through a nine-hitter in an 11-1 Class 4A Andrew Sectional semifinal win over Plainfield Central. Robb walked nobody and never had issues with falling behind in the count.
When Central’s Allison Mangino led off the fifth with a triple, it seemed a cinch she would score and at least get the Wildcats within 6-2. Instead, with nobody out, Liceaga rifled a beautiful throw to third baseman Madi Mulder to pick off Mangino.
With that kind of a catcher, with Rodriguez getting it done at shortstop, Jen Ames doing likewise at second base and a center fielder in Karina Vargas who covers ground, West is strong up the middle.
“Our defense has picked it up,” Tigers coach Heather Suca said. “There was a time when it was our weakness. Alysia has picked it up a lot lately at shortstop. She seems to be better with the pressure on.
“And that pickoff Julia got at third, that was huge.”
“We have a team that hits well,” Rodriguez said. “If we also have the defense to go with our pitching, we’re unstoppable.”
That was not a boast, mind you, only a statement of where this team has been heading. SouthWest Suburban Blue champion West began the season 0-4 and is 30-7 entering Saturday’s sectional final against Lockport or Lincoln-Way East.
Robb (13-4) and senior Joy Treasure (17-3) have split the pitching load down the middle, and both sport ERAs in the low 2s.
In addition, Suca’s 3-4-5 hitters are Treasure, Rodriguez and Robb.
Still, when you watch the Tigers, what jumps out is their balance up and down the lineup, and how good they are for how young they are.
Three freshmen – Robb, third baseman Mulder and left fielder Kristen Ames – are regulars. Another freshman, DeShonte Smith, has been a part-time player and a prized pinch-hitter.
“All the freshmen are making clutch plays,” Suca said. “Kristen has a knack for finding a hole somewhere like she did [Tuesday for a two-run single]. Madi has been solid offensively, and she has become a pretty good third baseman.
“DeShonte is our clutch pinch-hitter. She has 20 RBIs and for no more at-bats than she has , that’s remarkable.”
Robb said having several classmates in major roles has helped make this season special for her.
“We’re having a great season,” she said. “This is the best freshman year I could have asked for. For all of us freshmen to be on the varsity and starting and contributing, that’s great. All of us are close, and going through this season is making us even closer.”
Rodriguez said there is nothing but good feelings toward the Kiddie Corps.
“I love having the freshmen with us,” she said. “They are doing a phenomenal job.”
With Rodriguez, Jen Ames and Lorelei Tokarczyk among the juniors on the roster, West figures to be a team to reckon with in 2015. But this is not the time to be looking ahead.
The Tigers know they must beat an SWS Blue adversary, either Lockport or Lincoln-Way East, Saturday morning to claim the sectional crown. That’s all that is on their minds.