The foundation of local sports is strengthened when former players give back to the community in a coaching capacity.
Most high school and travel coaches grew up playing sports and remain involved by passing on their love of the game to the next generation. In the lives of such coaches, the conclusion of his or her own career as a competitor is an inevitable rite of passage.
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For a variety of reasons the time comes when an athlete puts down the ball for the last time and decides to pick up the clipboard for good. That time arrives this weekend for Elgin High and Judson University graduate Jaci Corn, who intends to turn her full attention to a budding coaching career.
Already a three-sport coach at St. Edward, Corn will play the final game of her outstanding athletic career this weekend in Rockford, when her Northern Illinois Lightning women's softball team competes in the USSSA Nationals.
"I honestly don't think it'll hit me until next year when I'm not playing in the summer," said the affable 25-year old, who has been playing organized softball since she was eight. "I was thinking about (retiring) last year. It'll be emotional, of course, but I don't think it'll hit me right then and there. We'll see, though."
Sports are ingrained in Corn's psyche. She was among the dying breed of three-sport athletes while at Elgin, where she competed in tennis, basketball and softball before graduating in 2002.
She was a state qualifier in tennis and a state qualifier in basketball's 3-point contest, but softball proved to be her favorite and best sport. The left-handed first baseman was among the elite in the Upstate Eight Conference and was named three times to all-area teams by the Daily Herald and Elgin Courier-News.
At Elgin Community College, she earned all-conference and all Region-IV honors before transferring to Judson, where she was twice named the Eagles' Defensive Player of the Year. She graduated in 2007 with a degree in Sport Management and is pursuing her Master's in the same discipline at Northern Illinois University.
Corn has wasted no time making the most of her education in the coaching arena. In June she was named varsity softball coach at St. Edward, where she guided the sophomore team the last three seasons. She'll wear that hat in addition to her existing roles as the school's varsity tennis coach and sophomore girls basketball assistant.
And next summer she will take over as manager of the Lightning's 16U team, following two seasons as an assistant.
Corn's overriding message to her players will be consistent because it will come from the heart.
"I want to give them the experience I've had growing up: having fun playing, still being competitive about it, learning from your own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others," she said. "I want to teach the game but at the same time teach life lessons they can take with them later on."
Travel softball has dominated Corn's summers since high school. She played on successful teams with the Fox Valley Renegades and Elgin Heat before joining the Lightning in 2004. She has since played seven summer seasons with the 11-year-old travel organization, founded and coached by Daily Herald Fox Valley Sports Editor John Radtke, whose appreciation of Corn includes her playing ability but encompasses far more.
"She latched onto softball as her niche and she became one of the most reliable and dependable players I've had in my 11 years of coaching at the women's level," Radtke said. "Still, today, she can do the splits at first base, and she's by far the best defensive first basemen I've ever had.
"But above and beyond all that she's been the consummate teammate. She's gotten involved in helping me run the organization as we've grown at the youth levels and, more than any one person in the history of the Lightning, she has been at the forefront of our organization's growth."
Corn was also as durable a player as you'll find anywhere. In her seven seasons with the Lightning, she's produced a program record 173 hits for teams that have won 184 games and lost 112. She's played in 248 of those 260 games and helped the program to third-place finishes in the USSSA World Series of 2006 and 2007.
At the conclusion of this weekend's tournament with the Lightning, Corn will forever trade in the aches and pains a player experiences for the less tangible aches and pains that gnaw at coaches. But she hardly views it as an ending. Ready to devote herself full time to a career in coaching, she's too enthused about the bright, new era dawning ahead of her to dwell on the sunset of her playing days.
"I've made sure softball will always be a part of my life," Corn said, "so even though this will be my last game as a player I've been a coach and I'm staying a coach. It will always be in my life.
"I can live through my players now," she added with a laugh.
And the foundation of local sports just got that much stronger.