Story and photo by Chet Piotrowski Jr.
Charleston High School seniors Erin Blair and Karah Moore have been instrumental in helping Charleston Middle make a run in the IESA postseason softball playoffs.
The Trojans defeated Effingham, 12-7, earlier this week to win the regional championship.
Charleston Middle (20-1) next faces host Champaign Edison (19-1) at 10 a.m. Saturday at Zahnd Park to determine the sectional championship. The winner advances as one of eight teams headed to the state tournament in Normal, beginning Sept. 23.
CHS softball coach Blain Mayhall, who also coaches the middle school team, normally has a senior help. But since he didn’t have any last year, Blair and Moore started assisting during their junior year and have continued into this year.
“He just asked us if we would be interested in helping and I said ‘Totally’,” Blair said. “I loved my volunteer high school coaches when I was in middle school. I thought it would be fun. I love the game. I really do. I know those girls. Im friends with their older siblings.”
Mayhall said their presence makes a big impact on his middle school players.
“It’s huge. It’s nice for them to give back,” he said. “The girls love having them out here. They can relate better than an old man.”
CMS’s Ella Price agreed.
“It makes us feel more comfortable.”
The seniors, though, try to get the middle school players out of their comfort zone.
“We show them the older they get the more is going to be expected of them,” Blair said. “We push them. They have so much potential. We just want to help them reach their ceiling.”
And, by that, the seniors challenge the middle schoolers to act as a team.
“If we’re on the bench and we’re down by four or five, they’ll tell us to ‘Get up!” said CMS pitcher and infielder Raylin Cox. “I don’t want to see you sitting and be a team!”
The seniors help with warmups, hitting flyballs, and throwing front toss in batting cages.
“Karah helps us with pitching, and she does pretty good,” Cox said. “Erin helps with the outfielders, and she’s helped improve the outfielders a lot.”
Mayhall said the seniors’ experience is immensely invaluable to his middle school squad.
“Karah, as a pitcher, can talk to them with more knowledge than I can,” Mayhall said. “Erin, as a catcher, can talk about where to setup, how to frame, why would we call these pitches. It’s invaluable for them to be out here, and it’s a great way to give back.”
“Karah has expertise with the pitchers and the hitters because she’s a heckuva hitter too,” he said. “They’re invaluable.”
On game days, Moore handles the play-by-play for GameChanger while Blair calls the pitches. That is a first for a Mayhall-led middle school squad.
“Erin wanted to call pitches this year,” he said. “I’ve never let a high school player call pitches. So I said “Yeah, give it a try!” She’s done great all year. It’s a good thing for her going into the high school season and (for) her confidence and how we play the game, and why we make the pitches that we make.”
It’s a measure of trust that comes with experience. Blair said she’s been coached by Mayhall since the sixth grade, so she understands his philosophy well.
“It makes me feel good about myself because he trusts me,” she said. “He taught me how to play softball through travel ball. Id like to think that I think the same way he does about pitching.”
Being on the coaching side of softball gives the seniors a different perspective on the game.
“I think it makes them think about the game differently while they’re out there,” Mayhall said. “When they’re out there, Amber (May) is calling pitches to Erin, and Karah is throwing what Amber calls. Now Erin can think of why we’re doing this and have a better appreciation for what we call.”
“It helps me understand how the coaches feel about me whenever I’m on the field,” she said. “It helps me respect them more. I already had tons of respect for my coaches, but it makes me respect them in a different way that we really are a handful.”
Blair said when the girls are struggling with an aspect of the game, they come to her for help because they trust her.
Cox said the biggest tip the seniors have taught her is to stay positive.
“They say like ‘move on’ and ‘turn the page’ and don’t leave (a bad play) in your head.”
Price said the same.
“I would say don’t get down on yourself because it’s contagious to the rest of the team.”
Blair said there are too many instances to pinpoint on why she’s proud of this team.
“There’s a lot, but just seeing their faces light up in general after they make an amazing play,” she said. “I think they just want to learn. It’s just fun. I like seeing them improve and do things I taught them. It makes me happy.”