MISHAWAKA — Beth Zachary has an ace up her sleeve. Actually, she’s lucky enough to have one up each sleeve.
Senior Makenzie Joecken and freshman Danielle Watson give the Penn High School softball coach a pleasant dilemma as she plots her lineup card each game.
That is, whom to start in the circle?
While most teams have one pitcher that eats up the bulk of the innings, whether that pitcher is a genuine ace or not, Zachary’s been alternating between Joecken and Watson. Statistically at least, there’s even a third comparable option in senior Courtney Pepper.
Both Watson and Joecken are hot right now as the No. 3-ranked Kingsmen (26-4) get ready to face Hamilton Southeastern (21-10) in a West Lafayette Harrison Semistate semifinal at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 7.
Watson fired her second consecutive no-hitter as Penn defeated Concord 11-1 in a Class 4A regional championship Tuesday, June 3.
Watson’s pair of gems came sandwiched around Joecken tossing a one-hitter in the Mishawaka Sectional title game against South Bend Clay. And earlier in the sectional, Joecken twirled a three-hitter as the Kingsmen avenged a regular-season loss by beating the host school 6-1.
“We just have faith in all our pitchers,” Zachary said of why she started her freshman in the regional. “We rotate them as much as we can. But we don’t stick to an exact rotation by any means. We kind of take a look at who we’re facing, what we need defensively and who’s performing well in practice and try to make a decision based on that.”
Joecken is 12-2 with a 0.71 earned run average. Watson is 8-2 with a 1.22 ERA, and Pepper 5-0 with a 1.26 ERA.
Zachary, who pitched Castle High to a state title in 2001, acknowledged that she at least considered making a fast change when Watson got into a first-inning jam against Concord with a throwing error, a walk and two wild pitches, good for a 1-0 deficit.
But Joecken, who likely would’ve been summoned from her first base spot, was among those not surprised that a change never came.
“I know Coach Zach has complete faith in Danielle, and I think Danielle knows this team has her back,” Joecken said. “Even with the shaky start, (the final score) was still 11-1, so she obviously knew what to do.”
“I just needed to get first-pitch strikes, stay ahead, keep it on the corners and keep my speed up,” said Watson, who did mix in a few change-ups. “I knew our defense and offense were going to do their jobs.”
Joecken also happens to be the leader of that offense. On the season, the Cleveland State recruit is pacing Penn in most categories, including batting average (.494), on-base percentage (.531), homers (four), doubles (14), and runs batted in (31).
As a team, the Kingsmen are batting a robust .365.
Still, the majority of postseason games come down to pitching, and Penn won’t be the only one with premier weaponry in that regard Saturday.
If the Kingsmen can get by a Hamilton Southeastern club that has its 21 wins against a demanding schedule, then they’ll face either the No. 1-ranked team in the state in Crown Point (29-0) or 2012 state runner-up Huntington North (23-5) in the 7 p.m. semistate final.
Crown Point sophomore Miranda Elish is 24-0 with a 0.27 ERA, while senior and Kentucky recruit Erin Rethlake is 12-1 with a 0.68 ERA for Huntington.