Brown leads Villa Grove softball to state, reflects on journey

May 30—VILLA GROVE — Alex Brown spun around and watched the ball sail toward Hayden Thomas in left field early Monday afternoon.

Then, time seemed to freeze as if they were in a movie.

"It felt like everything was going in slow motion," Brown said. "I trust Hayden. We've played together since she was little, and I knew she'd be fine. It was like slow motion coming down into her glove, and I was like, 'She better catch this.'"

Thomas backed up to the warning track as the wind kept the ball from going over the fence, and she made the catch, giving Villa Grove a 5-2 win against Serena and sending the Blue Devils to the state finals for the first time in program history.

Their victory on Monday ensured they will play on June 1, the final day of the Class 1A IHSA softball season. Whether it's for a state championship or third place on Saturday is to be determined, but one thing is for sure: Brown will have the ball in her hands no matter what.

"She's my senior, she's my leader and she's been here before," Villa Grove coach Jeana Block said. "As long as she can pitch, I'm riding her. She's proven herself, and she deserves it. We'll see how far she can take us."

'I don't belong anywhere else but here'Block saw Brown's success coming 10 years ago. Block created the Villa Grove Elite travel program about five years prior with the hope of developing kids from Villa Grove to make the junior high and high school teams successful down the road.

Brown joined just before turning 8 years old, "so I've had my eye on her for a bit," Block said.

Brown's aunt was once a pitcher for the Blue Devils, and she taught her the basics. When she finally got her shot in the circle, she immediately went on the coaches' radars.

"One day, my travel coach was like, 'Hey, today's your day. You're going in.' Little me was like, 'Oh my gosh, it's my chance. I've been waiting for this,'" Brown said. "He was like, 'You're actually going to go out there,' and I freaked out, but it was a good thing for me. It made me overcome my nerves and control myself."

She had a good game, which led to her pitching a lot more the rest of that season and during the next decade.

Brown helped the Villa Grove Junior High softball team make a run to state in 2019, an experience she said was "awesome" and "the biggest thing I had done as a little kid." She was the No. 2 pitcher behind Kaitlyn Drew. While Brown also loved playing third base, there was something inside her that wanted the responsibility of being the go-to arm.

"There was a part of me that was like, 'I want to be the one out there throwing and knowing my teammates have my back,'" Brown said. "I love the adrenaline and being able to control part of the game."

Entering their freshman year, Drew decided to go the homeschool route. That was the year the Villa Grove school board voted to discontinue homeschooled athletes playing sports for the district, meaning Brown was the new top incoming pitcher from her class. Still, she was the third option overall, namely behind Block's daughter, then-senior Kyleigh Block.

Brown pitched about a third of the games as a freshman but none against top-level competition, just easing her way into varsity softball. That is, until the postseason arrived.

The Blue Devils' top-two pitchers went down with injuries, leaving young Brown as the one with the ball and the season on the line.

"I was very scared. I was 14 years old playing these 18-year-old girls," Brown said. "Kyleigh Block talked to me and was like, 'You'll be fine out there. Your teammates have your back. Just throw. It's just a game. Have fun.' That really helped me having a senior talk to me about just going out there and playing."

Villa Grove lost 2-1 to Arcola in the regional championship game that season in 2021, with Brown pitching a great game. She didn't quite know what to expect coming into high school, but that was when she and everyone around her realized the caliber of pitcher she had the potential to become.

"That was a turning point for me like, 'I can play with these girls. I don't belong anywhere else but here,'" Brown said.

'You are a superstar'Brown continued to improve her sophomore year, pitching two-thirds of the team's innings due to more injuries, inadvertently preparing her for what she's doing now, calmly leading the Blue Devils where they've never been before.

Her leadership comes in two ways, and it starts with her play on the field. For the third year in a row, Brown has thrown more innings than any of her teammates by far, and carries a 13-5 record with a 3.79 earned run average to go with 112 strikeouts and 25 walks in 122 innings.

She's pitched every inning of Villa Grove's five postseason games, giving up a total of just five runs.

Villa Grove senior catcher Chloe Reardon has been Brown's battery mate for the last seven years. She said she loves catching for Brown because she rarely misses her spots and it just feels like they're playing catch all game.

"Whenever she's in the circle, we know we're going to have to have good defense, but we also know there won't be a million home runs hit off of her," Reardon said. "We're pretty confident when she's up there that it's going to be routine plays and we won't have to worry too much. We know there will be a lot of strikeouts."

The same goes for Brown's play at the plate. She has a .422 batting average this season with seven home runs and 30 RBI. She drove in two of the biggest runs of the season in the sixth inning of Monday's super-sectional, doubling home Reardon and Kayln Cordes to tie the game at 2.

"After she hit the double, I grabbed her mask and said, 'You are a superstar. I don't even need to be here. You are doing this,'" Jeana Block said. "She's just dragging them through it."

It's all about exuding confidence. In Brown's case, that doesn't necessarily mean expressing it vocally but more so with her comfortable presence, especially in the circle.

"I tell myself, 'Hey, it's just another batter you're going to throw to. It's not a special game. It's just you and Chloe out there,'" Brown said. "I think that sets a tone for the field like, 'She's got it, so we've got it.'"

The other side of Brown's leadership comes from her quiet, impactful voice. She's not a loud leader, but her teammates are sure to listen when she speaks up. The loudest Block has heard Brown was a couple weeks ago when she told her teammates to knock off some of their antics at practice while they were preparing for regional play.

"She's not afraid to call people out, but she does it respectfully," Block said. "I can't say it enough, her personality is so even-keeled. You never see her wound up. When things get stressful, the kids look to her like, 'Alex isn't freaking out, so we're fine.'"

In the same way Brown holds her teammates accountable, she also encourages them. She'll tell it how it is if someone makes a costly mistake in the field and demand they do better, but she'll also be the first person to put her arm around their shoulder and tell them to keep their head up and make the next play.

"She has always been there to pick me up after every mistake I've made," Reardon said. "She picks up her teammates no matter what happens. If it's a play that makes or breaks the game, she's going to cheer you up after and make sure you don't feel down about yourself. She's just a really great teammate all around."

'Wouldn't change it for anything'Brown sat in the dugout for about 10 minutes during Tuesday's practice, twirling a ball in her hand and cracking her knuckles, doing an interview while her teammates hit on the field. That's the only thing she's been nervous for throughout this postseason run.

She's not worried about playing AlWood in Friday's first 1A state semifinal game at 10 a.m. at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex in Peoria. She's not worried about Trico or Illini Bluffs on the other side of the bracket. To her, "we're going to go play another game." After all, she was on this stage a few years ago as an eighth-grader.

"I've been through a couple hundred more games since then. It's still very exciting, but I can take more of a deep breath, relax and know what's going on," Brown said. "I try not to think too much about it. I don't want the girls or the coaches to get ahead because it's just a game, and we're here to have fun."

That's the mindset that has made her the player she is today and led her team to where it is today.

Reardon was just thinking about their journey over the last handful of years together and how neither of them expected to make it this far. It made her think about what this Villa Grove team would look like without Brown.

"Without Alex and without her leading the team, I definitely think it would be a little bit harder," Reardon said. "She's a big, big asset. Without her, it would be a little rough."

Brown is heading to Danville Area Community College next year to continue her softball career. She's excited for it, but she has two more games left to make the most of her time as a Blue Devil

"The biggest thing I'm looking forward to is being able to give it my all," Brown said. "No matter if we win or lose, these are my last two high school games with these girls, and I wouldn't change it for anything."