MAPLE PARK – A young team just keeps getting younger.
The Kaneland softball team heads into the season with three freshmen on the 12-player roster and high hopes to recreate the success of the past couple years.
"I'm excited," third-year coach Mike Kuefler said. "This year, with 12 all the way through No. 1 we have probably the best overall talent we've had in years. We've had some exceptional teams over the years, but as far as the athletes we have this year we're real consistent."
Last year, two freshman had a huge impact on the Knights, who finished 24-13 and reached the finals of the Class 3A Sterling Sectional. Emilee Erickson spent time on the mound and Donatella Somessi hit .351 with four home runs.
Both were Daily Chronicle All-Area First Team selections.
This year, Kuefler said he expects three freshman to contribute – Rose Roach, Olivia Ortegel and Mckenna Ryan, with Ryan expected to see some time on the mound and Roach and Ortegel competing for middle infield positions.
Senior Lexi Abruzzo, a first-team second baseman last year, said the new players don't seem like freshman.
"Every single girl on this team has played travel, we're all experienced, which is weird for high school," Abruzzo said. "We pick things up faster, we move along with practices faster, there's no excuses."
One of the team's other seniors, first baseman Hannah Theobald, agreed.
"Coach doesn't discriminate by age, and he's taught me not to as well," Theobald said. "I think a lot of these girls have prove themselves. They've shown they can hang with us and beat and compete with this competition we see this year."
Kuefler said he also expects a big improvement out of Erickson, who was 9-3 with a 3.17 ERA. She stuck out 100 and walked 42 in 101 2/3 innings.
"Her speed and strength, you'll see a big difference in her this spring," Kuefler said. "Her stamina's up, as is her overall presence on the mound."
Aly Jesionowski pitched more innings then Erickson last year but has since graduated.
"I think I'm just trying to take Aly's place and be a leader," Erickson said. "Not just as far as my skill but emotionally too, and keep the team calm even if I'm struggling, and stay strong for the rest of my team."
Coach: Jeff Davis (13th year, 225-155)
Last year: 13-17, lost to Huntley, 8-7, in a Class 4A DeKalb Regional semifinal
Keep an eye on: It's hard to call a .333 batting average, three homers and 31 RBIs an off year. While Mallory Warner put those numbers up last year as a sophomore, it wasn't what Davis said she expected. Part of that was a move to pitcher, Davis said, but now she's playing in the outfield – where she plays in the travel season – and Davis is expecting a leap forward in her junior year.
Also: Ashley Nelson, soph. P; Rylee Levine, soph., SS/P; Jenna Levine, sr., IF; Torrie Newport, sr., P/2B; Mya Millard, sr., C/3B
Davis' comments: "We're young, and we're going to make some mistakes. Those mental mistakes happen when you're this young."
The lowdown: The Barbs are coming off just the third losing season in Davis' tenure at the school and have graduated five senior starters. They'll have an all-new outfield, anchored by Warner and junior center fielder Jadyn Ensign.
Nelson came onto the varsity roster late in the year and ended up making 10 appearances. She's picked up velocity on her fastball, Davis said, and makes a nice compliment to Newport. He said he's likely to use both in the same game frequently this year.
Three freshman should see time in the infield – Amanda DuBeau, Ava Jensen and Kate Wellman. Davis said he expects them to be strong defensively and that the offense will take care of itself sooner or later.
As for Warner, Davis said he expects her not have to worry about pitching anymore will cause her to make a huge leap.
"She's an excellent hitter, and I think she took her struggles pitching into the batters box," Davis said. "That's why I think she's excited to play the outfield. It's less stress and she can focus on driving in runs and be a factor at the plate."
Coach: Jill Carpenter (13th year, 200-212)
Last year: 9-21, lost to Marian, 11-9, in the semifinals of the Class 3A Woodstock North Regional
Keep an eye on: Carpenter said Hayley Trela has made great leaps between her freshman and sophomore season, and should provide a good 1-2 punch at the top of the order with returning center fielder Amanda Swedberg, a junior.
Also: Faith Reynolds, soph., P/1B; Hannah Mizgalski, soph., P/OF/1B; Gracyn Gabriel, jr., 2B/3B; Anna Criswell, sr., OF; Ally Versluys, sr., P/OF
Carpenter's comments: "Honestly, we talked about it and there's a lot of teams out there that have graduated a lot of people, so why not us? We can be in the mix with everybody else. I don't expect us to go undefeated in conference or anything like that but I think we can hang with everybody we play."
The lowdown: Coming off the first single-digit win total in Carpenter's tenure, the coach said he thinks the team will dramatically improve with eight players who saw significant playing time back. And they're still young with just two seniors on the squad. Both juniors are three-year starters, as are juniors Swedberg and catcher Mia Richards. Like last year, Carpenter said she expects to go with a three-pitcher rotation led by Versluys, with Reynolds and Mizgalski getting plenty of time in the circle as well.
Coach: Mike Kuefler (Third year, 47-25)
Last year: 24-13, lost to Marengo, 5-1, in the finals of the Class 3A Sterling Sectional
Keep an eye on: Donatella Somessi exploded on to the scene as a freshman last year, hitting .351 with four homers. She also ripped five triples and eight doubles while patrolling the outfield for the Knights.
Also: Hannah Theobald, sr., 1B; Lexi Abruzzo, sr., 2B; Emilee Erickson, soph., P; Hailey Roach, jr., 3B
Kuefler's comments: "The biggest thing we're working on is these kids finding an identity as fast as they can. The quicker they find an identity, they get comfortable with each other, the sky's the limit. We're going to be competitive and we do have goals. We want to get back downstate and collect a conference championship along the way."
The lowdown: Even with Daily Chronicle Player of the Year Morgan Weber graduated, the Knights are expecting to score many, many runs this year. Theobald, Abruzzo and Somessi were all dangerous hitters a year ago and have improved in the offseason, Kuefler said. He said the production will come from pretty much any of the 12 players on the roster.
Coach: Mike Lauer (20th year, 335-204)
Last year: 24-12, lost to Belvidere, 5-2, in the semifinals of the Class 3A Belivdere Regional
Keep an eye on: Madison Wagner had a breakout year for the Cogs, hitting .456 with 38 RBIs and 30 runs scored a year and is back to anchor third base.
Also: Cassie Bade, sr., OF; Leah Fowler, sr., C; Ashley Peterson, jr., LF; Leea Perry, jr., 2B/SS; Ashley Clemente, jr., 2B/SS/OF/P; Olivia Simmons, soph., P/2B
Lauer's comments: "I feel like we're in a good position. There's a lot of kids returning and they're all asking to start the season. They know what we're looking for. The cohesiveness is good. It's early but we're very team oriented."
The lowdown: Peterson also had a huge year for Genoa-Kingston, hitting .481 on the year as she and Wagner earned first-team sports on the Daily Chronicle all-area team. Simmons split the pitching duties last year but will take over more of the time in the circle, an Clemente should see more time pitching as well.
Indian Creek Timberwolves
Coach: Jeremy Lowe, first season
Last year: 14-12, lost to Marquette, 3-0, in the semifinals of the Class 1A Somonauk Sectional
Keep an eye on: Jesika Lowe and Hailey Herrmann provided some pop for the Timberwolves last year, hitting all five of the team's homers, with Herrmann belting four of them. Jeremy Lowe said he expects even more power from the two of them this year.
Also: Autumn Johanningsmeier, jr., C; Jade Milostan, jr., P; Chloe Stambaugh, jr., SS
Lowe's comments: "We're shooting for that again this year, and we'd like to go beyond sectional. I thought last year we'd take regionals, and this year taking sectionals is a goal we are definitely shooting for.
The lowdown: A lot of the team's success this year will come down to health. Lowe said there's 10 players on the team this year and just one senior. Haley Petragallo, who hit .467 and played for the soccer team as well last year, will play soccer fulltime this season. But Lowe said he's excited about Milostan and Jesika Lowe on the mound, and thinks the team can at least duplicate its sectional run of a year ago.
Coach: Michael Bottom (Second season, 3-18)
Last year: 3-18, lost 11-10 to Woodlands Academy in the first round of the Class 1A Durand Regional
Keep an eye on: Freshman Brooke Brayden will come in and spit time in the circle for the Hawks. Bottom said Brayden has experience on a travel team and works with pitching coaches in the offseason.
Also: Gianna Bottom, soph., C; McKenzie Hampton, jr., IF; Laney Melendez, soph., P
Bottom's comments: "We have a very young team this year. Half freshman, half sophomores – and one junior."
The lowdown: For a team his size, Bottom has a lot of benefits other teams don't. For starters, there's the five players on the roster who play travel ball, when a lot of other Little 10 schools don't have any. There's also the fact that he feels he has two strong pitchers in Melendez and Brayden.
Hinckley-Big Rock Royals
Coach: Kristy Harrod
Last year: 0-20, lost 15-0 to Indian Creek in the first round of the Class 1A Indian Creek Regional
Keep an eye on: Like last year, Tomi Harrod and Allison Ryan will do a bulk of the pitching and catching, splitting time between the two positions.
Also: Abby Kuppler, soph.; Lindsay Nelson, jr., Anais Lawler, jr.; Sophie Albright, sr.; Alyssa Ekstrom, jr.
Harrod's comments: "We got some pretty good numbers and the girls are excited to play. Last year's rookies are really stepping up this year."
The lowdown: It's been a process for the seven-year old program of which Harrod has been a part of from the start as either the head coach or an assistant. Harrod said she's not sure of positions yet for all the players. She said it's challenge because not only do most of the players not have travel ball experience, they don't have rec league experience either. She said the only travel ball player in the history of the program is Tomi Harrod.