Altamont head coach John Niebrugge prefers man to machine.
The second-year coach throws to the Indians in hitting drills, instead of putting a pitching machine in his place because he said it better simulates actual arm motion and speed.
His manual mentality appears to be shaping the Indians' offense into a well-oiled machine, unloading a 57-3 run differential this postseason, during their run to today's Class 1A State semifinal game.
“The pitching they're seeing now is slower than what they're getting (from me) every day,” Niebrugge said. “And they're smoking me in practice.”
Niebrugge doesn't expect to routinely beat teams in the way the Indians won their last two games – a pair of wins by a combined score of 31-0, collecting a sectional and super-sectional title along the way.
But the Indians' hitters show better approaches at the plate, he said, swinging at pitches in the strike zone. Altamont compiled 30 hits in their last two games.
Second baseman Josie Phillips is at the head of an offense on a tear. Phillips has six hits, 10 RBIs and a home run in the last two games. Right fielder Nikki Tharp has four hits, three RBIs and a home run. Utility player Brooke Burns has five hits in her last five at-bats with six RBIs and a home run.
Phillips is one of five everyday starters boasting batting averages better than .400, including center fielder Madison Ohnesorge's .510 and pitcher Deidre Ledbetter's .485.
The hot batting order has almost exclusively stayed the same from day one, Niebrugge said, with Burns and Elizabeth Biggs often switching in and out of the lineup.
“It's pretty easy to write out the lineup,” Niebrugge said. “It's not something I'm going in there wondering what my best matchup is going to be with (the opponent's) pitcher.”
Sciota West Prairie's Kourtney Campbell will be the Indians' first test on the big stage. Campbell has pitched in all 35 of the Cyclones' games this season, compiling a 26-8 record in 225 1-3 innings.
Campbell has 200 strikeouts this season and a 1.62 ERA. Niebrugge said he expects her to throw in the high 50 miles per hour range, utilizing a rise ball as a strikeout pitch.
She'll face Altamont's ace, Deidre Ledbetter, who has a 24-3 record in 30 games this season. She's thrown in 169 2-3 innings, gathering 259 strikeouts and a 1.11 ERA. She hasn't given up a run in three games.
Unlike the Indians' batting order, only one of the Cyclones hitters is hitting better than .400. Jen Reedy has a .416 batting average with six doubles and 23 RBIs.
Five everyday starters hit better than .300, including Tabby Bilderback, who has a .374 average with a team-high four triples and three home runs. Hanna Runner is hitting .360 with 13 doubles.
“They have a lot of girls who swing hard,” Niebrugge said. “They're power hitters more or less. They just try to move people along but don't try to take extra bases.”
The Cyclones wont try to push the envelope by taking risks, Niebrugge said; instead, they'll look to string together base hits to score runs, putting extra pressure on the defense.
Ledbetter has eased some of the pressure from the pitching circle this posteason, striking out at least nine hitters in each game, including a postseason-high 13 strikeouts against Cumberland. She threw a no-hitter in the 15-0 win against Oblong for the sectional title.
Ledbetter and catcher Lauren White continue to gel as they call of the pitches themselves, allowing the coaches to sit back and watch even when they want to interrupt.
“Coach (John) Ledbetter and I sometimes want to know what's going on, but then again those two are so locked in that we trust them,” Niebrugge said. “They can see things that sometimes the coach can't see.”
White and Ledbetter are known to scout opponents during pregame warmups. Also, the pair tries to pick up notes about hitters in preparation for games.
The Indians will take the same mentality they've had all season into today's game — give the ball to Ledbetter on the mound and trust their strong lineup. Altamont and Sciota West Prairie will be the first game of the day at 10 a.m. at the Eastside Centre in Peoria.
“I'm very confident, but that's kind of the mentality we've had all season,” Niebrugge said. “We don't think we can get beat. We have an ace on the mound and a lineup that can hit. We have all the necessary tools to keep advancing.”
Alex McNamee can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or email@example.com.