It could be said that the Massac County softball season could be distilled into two bus rides.
One came on April 20, beginning right about the time the season did. Only the big yellow lizard departed with the volleyball team on board for their next-to-last match of the season at Benton.
One of the passengers was Cali McCraw, the Patriots’ 6-foot-3 pitcher finishing our her senior year as a middle hitter. With McCraw spiking and blocking volleyballs instead of throwing risers and drops, Massac County gave up nine homers in a five-inning game to Marion’s power-packed lineup and lost 24-2.
On June 15, another bus left the school’s parking lot. McCraw was on this one, too.
Along with the rest of her softball teammates, she was headed for the Class 2A semifinals and finals in Peoria. This wasn’t some garden-variety school bus with stiff-backed seats and little leg room, either.
“A charter bus,” McCraw said. “We hadn’t seen one of those in our lives.”
Thanks to McCraw going 19-1, the Patriots went from an epic rout in late April to being as good as anyone in the state in the middle of June. That makes McCraw the first Massac County softball player to earn The Southern Illinoisan Player of the Year.
In a year where the area boasted a number of deserving candidates for the award, McCraw stood over the competition like the Superman statue lords over Metropolis. In 135 innings, she gave up three earned runs for an ERA of 0.15.
The last of those earned runs came in the fourth inning of her final high school game, a 5-1 win over Tolono Unity for third place in the state tournament. It came just hours after the Patriots lost a bitter 1-0 decision in the semifinals to eventual state champ Rockridge.
Tears were shed after that game, but McCraw sensed opportunity in the third place game.
“We didn’t come all that way to get fourth place,” she said.
McCraw certainly wasn’t feeling any tension, laughing and joking with a writer and a couple of Peoria-area umpires sitting behind the backstop before the third place game. She not only produced in the circle, but at the plate by knocking in three runs with a two-run single in the third and an RBI single in the fifth.
For the year, she batted .400 with nine homers and 41 RBI. Her ninth inning single in May enabled Massac County to walk off Murphysboro 5-4, giving it control of SIRR Ohio, and she also homered in a 10-4 sectional championship win over Trico.
“She has a great desire to do great things on the softball field and it showed whether she was hitting or pitching,” said Patriots coach Molly Hargrove. “Throughout the season, she got better and put it all on the line until her last game.
“I enjoyed watching her grow as an athlete these last four years and I can not wait to see what the future holds for her.”
The future for McCraw will be spent in Evansville. She plans to play at the University of Southern Indiana, a Division II program that is coming off a rare losing season at 16-21. The Eagles are three years removed from a national championship.
McCraw plans to major in occupational or physical therapy at USI. It is personal for her. She had an uncle, who played semi-pro baseball, get in a car accident and end up paralyzed.
“I love helping people,” she said.
More than anything else, McCraw simply loves living. The girl who played three sports with distinction for the last four years and also found time to paint Taylor Swift portraits on the side has a perspective on life the average 18-year old doesn’t.
After all, at this time last year, she had just gotten back in the circle after her junior year was canceled due to COVID-19.
“It meant a lot more to have this season,” she said. “To go to state this season, it was that much more special.”