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updated: 4/11/2013 8:27 PM

Suddenly everyone's going deep

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Jerry Schilf must feel like the character from the movie "Back to the Future" who steps out of a time machine and doesn't recognize his own hometown.

The game of softball, it's a different world to Benet's coach these days.

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Schilf can recall being a part of three 1-0 sectional playoff games decided by wild pitches.

A week ago, Schilf watched his little lefty Abbie Gerth slug a home run and his team score 76 runs in four days.

"I think honestly over time the game of softball has evolved," said Stephanie Abello, a sophomore on Schilf's Benet team. "Girls are getting stronger."

Abello, who has hit 6 homers in seven games, epitomizes this shift.

For many years softball was dominated by pitching, defined by the strikeout.

If there is a defining play in softball this spring, it is the home run.

Girls, big and small, are hitting them. And they are hitting them in bunches.

Montini has hit 14 this spring in 11 games, at least one in its last 10 games; its single-season record coming in was 10. Trinity, in one game against defending state champ Marist, slugged 7 homers. Lincoln-Way North and T.F. South combined for 9 in nine innings. Benet has hit 9 in seven games, but that isn't all that surprising; the Redwings hit 46 last year.

But included in that nine is one by Gerth, who hit .169 with no extra-base hits last year, and another by leadoff girl Marissa Panko, her first varsity homer. Likewise, Downers Grove South tablesetter Jessica Andree rocketed a homer on Tuesday. Fenton leadoff hitter Hannah Wassmann hit 4 homers in a doubleheader; she didn't hit one last year.

The last two weeks I watched four games where teams combined to hit 3 or more homers. That never happened the first three years I covered softball here.

"The amazing thing is not the number of home runs but who's hitting them," Schilf said. "You can't give into anybody, because anybody's capable."

What in the name of Jennie Finch is going on here?

A perfect storm of reasons are in play here.

Clearly, the effects of the IHSA three years ago moving the distance from home plate to the pitching rubber to 43 from 40 feet is a factor.

The days of pitchers blowing fastballs and rises past hitters are all but gone. The conversation of the truly dominant pitching in DuPage County this year might just begin and end with Downers Grove North's Elaine Heflin.

Location and movement have, in part, replaced pure velocity as a pitcher's primary tools.

"If you're not overpowering, and you make a mistake against a good hitter, they're going to hit you," said Schilf, further noting "there are more junkball pitchers out there it seems. When you have junkball pitchers, the ball doesn't always spin the way they want it to."

Technological advances are also making balls jump off the bat.

In recent years the maximum exit speed (the legal testing speed on a ball exiting a bat) was reduced to 98 mph from 101. Montini coach Richie Costante noted that before, though, that 98 was only seen on a bat's "sweet spot." Now bats like the Louisville Slugger Xeno have a 98 exit speed on the end of the bat as well.

Abello recently switched to a Xeno bat, and Schilf noted that even when the Benet coaches hit balls for infield and outfield practice "the ball just flies."

"It's more forgiving. You don't have to get it on the sweet spot to get results," said Costante, whose Montini team has three Xeno bats. "You mis-hit a ball, you can still hit it good. Bat companies know that the better the ball travels, the more they'll sell."

Still, the kids themselves shouldn't be sold short. Technology is no substitute for sheer talent and hard work.

Benet boasts four future Division I hitters. The list is long of area softball rosters dotted with at least one future Division I kid.

Abello takes private lessons weekly year-round with Bill Morrow, her summer coach with the Wasco Diamonds. She is not in the minority.

With specialization, girls who play softball year-round are seeing thousands of pitches in the cage in winter months, honing their timing.

Costante noted that Montini films every at-bat and the girls log on to a computer program daily to review their swings.

Costante is one coach who will always preach the speed game, but he even admits a home run can change the complexion of the game with one swing.

"The bats are hot, the kids are better trained -- and being good helps," Costante said. "Some kids, it doesn't matter what they hit with. They could hit if you put a wet newspaper in their hands.

"We need to hit every day, because hitting wins games now. You have to be able to outscore teams."

jwelge@dailyherald.com

Follow Josh on Twitter @jwelge96

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