BARRINGTON – Huntley’s Briana Bower has incorporated more off-speed pitches this season, but it was no surprise to see the sophomore with a disappearing riseball go back to her favorite pitch with the tying runs on base in Monday’s Class 4A Barrington Supersectional.
“I just knew I had to get spin under the ball,” Bower said. “It was either going to do its job or go down the middle.”
It did its job.
Bower’s 87th pitch popped past the bat of Hersey’s Savannah Gazda, the Red Raiders’ infielders tossed their gloves into the air, and the celebration was on. Behind another stellar performance from their sophomore, the Raiders beat Hersey, 3-1, to advance to the state tournament for the first time in program history.
Bower finished with 15 strikeouts, her 19th game of the season with 10 or more strikeouts, and struck out the side in the fourth and fifth innings. At one point, Bower retired 17 straight batters, including a run of seven consecutive strikeouts.
Maybe most remarkably, Bower fell behind in the count only twice against Hersey – a 1-0 count to Sarah Bailitz in the fourth inning and a 2-0 count to Morgan Breden in the fifth. Both ended in strikeouts.
Bower issued first-pitch strikes to 25 of 27 batters and threw 79 of 87 pitches for strikes.
Bower generated plenty of buzz after a strong freshman year, when she pitched mostly in relief of 2018 Northwest Herald Player of the Year, Tiffany Giese. Bower appeared in 29 of 38 games and went 7-3 with a 1.68 ERA and struck out 109 batters in 79 innings.
That buzz is only getting louder.
“She is unreal for her age,” senior first baseman Grace Kutz said. “She’s only a sophomore, and she’s pitching lights out. I can’t wait to see where she goes. Right now, she’s a workhorse for us. She’s going to do great things.”
Bower’s first season as the Raiders’ starter has produced numbers not seen in McHenry County in quite some time. In an 11-1 regional final win over Harlem, Bower threw a six-inning no-hitter and became the first area pitcher since Prairie Ridge’s Kirsten Stevens to strike out 300 batters in a season.
Bower has saved some of her best work for the postseason. In 31 innings, Bower has allowed only four earned runs with 61 strikeouts, two walks and 13 hits. The Huskies started Monday’s game with three straight hits, but got only two hits the rest of the way.
“I knew I had to get on my high horse and be my best,” said Bower, who is 25-5 with a 1.14 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 339 strikeouts and 28 walks in 1971/3 innings, tossing two perfect games and two no-hitters. “My offense did amazing and gave me a little relief, giving me the lead. I knew I had a job to do.”
Bower’s riseball has been clocked as high as 67 mph this spring, but it’s her other pitches that have helped lead to monster numbers for the sophomore, Huntley coach Mark Petryniec said.
“It’s defining the off-speed pitches and secondary pitches,” Petryniec said. “She’s always had that fastball, but now she has a second, third or fourth pitch to go to in a big situation, and she has the confidence to throw any of them.”
“I didn’t have a changeup last season,” Bower added. “Everyone could just time me up.”
Petryniec also has seen his pitcher’s confidence rise throughout the season. Bower gave up a season-high 10 runs against Barrington in the team’s sixth game of the season at Barrington’s Field of Dreams.
Back at the Field of Dreams on Monday, this time with a trip to state on the line, Bower was at her best.
“Everything’s a journey,” said Petryniec, whose previous two teams lost in the sectional finals. “Barrington is one of the biggest hitting lineups. Obviously, after taking some lumps there, Bri was able to reset and refocus.”
Bower’s next test likely will be her toughest. Huntley, which has won 17 straight games, plays Marist (36-2) in the state semifinals at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the EastSide Centre in East Peoria.
Marist beat Geneva, 10-2, in the Marist Supersectional and will bring a 35-game winning streak into the state tournament. The RedHawks, who have not lost to a team from Illinois this year, had not allowed a run all postseason before Monday.
Bower, who is drawing interest from Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and North Carolina State, and the Raiders (33-7) are ready for whatever comes next.
“Words can’t explain it, but it’s awesome,” Bower said of reaching state. “It’s great to be the first ones to go. We’re going to make everyone proud, and no matter what happens, we’ll be happy.”