If you're a follower of the softball teams in the five Elgin area District U-46 high schools, take a minute to check out today's previews on those teams.
One thing will jump out at you pretty quickly. They all have experience.
Not in several years can we say the five U-46 schools have this much experience returning at the varsity level, and what that should lead to is each of them being competitive within their divisions of the Upstate Eight Conference and with each other and the other teams on their schedules.
We won't pretend to think that any of these teams can win a state championship. Fact is, they are not among the elite teams in the state. But it is heartwarming to see that in our little corner of the world, softball appears to be on an upswing.
"It hasn't happened in a while where we all have some good experienced players back," said Larkin coach Larry Hight, the dean of U-46 softball coaches now entering his 16th season at the helm.
There are a couple of reasons for this improvement. One is the longevity of the district's coaches. In addition to Hight starting his 16th season, Jim Wolfsmith is in season No. 8 at Bartlett, and Jason Schaal is in his sixth year as South Elgin's only coach. Nick Baird is in his third year at Streamwood, and Chad Dahlman, while in just his second year as elgin's head coach, spent a few years as a Larkin assistant before that.
"Consistency," said Schaal. "There hasn't been a big turnover in coaches the last couple years and I think that's helped see an improvement in numbers."
Pitching depth is another reason things should be more competitive this season. Whole Bartlett did lose Butler freshman Callie Dennison to graduation, the Hawks have some good young arms and every other team in the district has at least their starter back if not more. Junior Hannah Perryman at Elgin can be dominant, senior Megan Johnson at Larkin has great leadership abilities, senior Kelsey Johnson at Streamwood has experience and junior Sam Bolin at South Elgin is a horse.
So while I won't try to say that the days of Jenny Parks, Michelle Dickerson, Elizabeth Waller, Aimee Thompson, Tami Potter, Julie Filson, Kelli Whipple (OK, stop me) are back, it does appear we have at the very least some good experience in the circle this spring.
The other more defining reason U-46 softball is on the rise is that more and more girls within the district are playing softball in the summer. While some are still involved in Little League, which does a great job of teaching young girls fundamentals, there's also an increased interest in travel softball, which is the avenue any girl aspiring to play in college must take.
Wolfsmith's Bartlett program has had the most success of the U-46 programs the past few years and he attributes that directly to the Bartlett Silver Hawks travel program which, at the 18U level, has won two of the last three ASA Northern National championships.
"Overall in general I think the quality of softball and the talent level has risen," Wolfsmith said. "It goes hand-in-hand with summer ball. U-46 teams have more travel players and they're coming into high school ready to play.
"Nine years ago I could count on one hand the number of kids who played travel ball from Bartlett. Now it's the exact opposite. I can count on one hand the number of kids who don't play travel."
Wolfsmith also believes it's important for high school coaches to have communication with summer coaches, and he proves that by being visible and communicative with his players and their coaches during the summer season.
"It takes time to build a program and you have to work with the travel ball coaches," said Wolfsmith, who has benefited from his relationship with Brad Dennison, the coach of the 18U Silver Hawks national champs, and Rob Call, who also coaches an 18U Silver Hawks team and is Wolfsmith's assistant this year.
"We're blessed with the Bartlett Silver Hawks program and the Bartlett Park District program," Wolfsmith said. "It makes a difference when you have coaches who already have a connection with the kids coming into your school."
Hight agrees that travel ball is important to a player's continued improvement.
"This is the first time in 4-5 years that a couple of my girls who weren't playing travel went out and got on a travel team," he said. "I like that trend and I hope it keeps up. The only way you're going to improve is to get on that travel team."
"One of the things we're promoting is raising your level of play and that's what travel ball does," said Schaal. "Almost every girl on my varsity team has travel ball experience and that's the most I've had. And now my freshman and JV kids are all travel ball players."
There is significant cost involved in travel ball, so Dahlman makes sure he doesn't stray far from his relationship with people at Elgin's east side little leagues. But he believes by the time a girl is a freshman, if they want to improve, travel is the way to go.
"I've been pushing travel," he said. "We had 13 players at my camp and I told them all to try out for travel teams. They need to play travel ball to get better."
And with each school welcoming 15-20 new freshmen to their programs, if the five guys running the programs right now stick with it, and if they continue to promote their players participating on summer teams, this trend of better softball in U-46 just may continue.
Tournament time: St. Edward and Larkin will again host their annual tournament at the Elgin Sports Complex on back-to-back Saturdays in April. On April 16, St. Edward hosts the Chicagoland Challenge, which includes two-time defending champion Marengo, as well as Hampshire, Aurora Central Catholic, Farmington, Illiana Christian, Chicago Christian and Genoa-Kingston. On April 30, the annual Larkin Slugfest, which has become more local, will include Elgin, South Elgin, St. Edward, Burlington Central, Chatham-Glenwood, Oak Lawn and Plainfield Central.
Under the lights: The Elgin-Larkin game scheduled for Wednesday, April 27, which is Elgin's home game in the city series, will be played at 7 p.m. at Judson University. Elgin coach Chad Dahlman is billing the night as "Little League Night" and is planning activities for Little League softball players who come to the game.