I had a softball player on one of my summer teams for a few years -- Lauren Ott was her name -- and every time something out of the ordinary would happen in a game she'd say, "That's weird."
Which was exactly my thought when the last out was made at the sectional semifinal between Glenbard North and South Elgin in St. Charles Wednesday.
That Storm loss brought to a close the 2013 softball season for the 14 schools we cover from the Fox Valley bureau and, well, as Lauren always put it, that's weird.
It's the first time since 2006 our little corner of the world didn't have a team advance to at least the sectional final round of the state tournament series.
Pondering it, I don't think it had a whole lot to do with our area "being down" this year, I think it had more to do with the collective bunch of young teams we have in the area this season. When we publish our all-area team next Friday, you'll be surprised by the number of non-seniors on the squad this season. Yes, there are seniors, and they represent about half of the all-area team. But the other half being underclass players only tells me next year should be a great one.
So today, while we reflect on the season that's over in the Fox Valley but going strong into sectional final Saturday around the state (and state final weekend in Class 1A and 2A), we also take a look to what appears to be a bright future of softball in the Fox Valley.
We do a Daily Herald-wide Top 20 of course, and the final one will appear Sunday, June 9, but for today's purposes here, we'll rank each of our 14 area teams with a brief comment about the season and the future.
1) Bartlett (25-10): The season may have ended sooner than last year for the Hawks, but not many teams play for the state championship every year, despite that always being the goal. Bartlett coach Jim Wolfsmith got a lot of mileage out of an untested pitching staff this season, which was led by junior Holly Pagan. The Hawks will have to replace their leadoff hitter with the graduation of Rachel Odolski, but with juniors Kayla Haberstich and Alex Morales leading the returning group, Bartlett figures to be awfully tough again next year.
2) Burlington Central (27-4): The Rockets turned a bit of a corner with their first Big Northern East title since 2009 but coach Wade Maisto would gladly trade that in right now to be where rival Marengo is -- in the sectional finals again. There's a multitude of talent returning at Central and with Angie Morrow coming back from injury to join Brooke Gaylord and Emily Kisch in the circle, not to mention an offense led by NIU recruit Bekah Harnish, the Rockets just might go into 2014 as the top-ranked team in Class 3A.
3) South Elgin (19-15): While the record wasn't sparkling, the Storm scored some pretty nice quality wins during the season, and then a regional title, and they did so with only two senior starters. Whomever replaces Jason Schaal at the helm will have to replace the middle infield with the graduation of Kara Rodriguez and Victoria Watt, but with the junior battery of Paige Allen and Alyssa Buddle returning, as well as five other starters, look for South Elgin to be in the thick of things again next year.
4) Cary-Grove (19-6): What began so promising for the Trojans ended in disappointment, but it's only a game and the important thing is Lindsay Efflandt is fine and she'll pitch for several years to come. The line drive she took to the face on April 22 made us all realize that who wins and loses a softball game really isn't very important. Efflandt, who is headed to Yale, was able to come back for the Trojans' final three games of the season and even though her team's campaign, and her brilliant career, ended in a regional loss to Jacobs, Efflandt will long be remembered as one of the best pitchers and classiest players to ever walk onto a softball field in this or any other area. One thing Efflandt's absence did for the Trojans is give junior Lauren Stanley a chance to get some varsity innings in this season and she made it clear that Cary-Grove will be in good hands with her in the circle next year.
5) Jacobs (18-15): After a magical run to the Elite Eight last season, one that ended with the graduation of standout pitcher Katie Kirker, it figured the Golden Eagles would be rebuilding this year. But Kelsey Peters, who returns, kept her team in most every game and Alyssa Lach, who also returns, was one of the leading hitters in the area. Jacobs winning 18 games and advancing to a regional final is a testament to the patience and tutelage of coach Jeremy Bauer and his staff and with several returning starters, Jacobs figures to be a tough opponent again next season.
6) Huntley (22-12): This is sound like a recording, but the Red Raiders are another team that thrived with youth, including super sophomore pitcher Haley Spannraft. Huntley will miss the leadership of senior Randi Peterson but she was one of only two seniors on the roster, which bodes well for another strong season in 2014.
7) CL South (14-10): Um, see above. It really is a recurring theme. The Gators, like several other area teams, return their No. 1 pitcher in sophomore Hailee Massie, who fought through some injuries and one of the most weather-shortened schedules around, to have a strong season. She'll be considered one of the top pitchers in the Fox Valley Conference going into next season and with a shortstop and hitter like Sam McLean also returning, the nucleus is there for CL South to be a contender next year.
8) Elgin (14-15): Another team without many seniors, the Maroons will bring back three of the top players in the area in Anna Eckholm, Jennah Perryman and Kelly Bremer. They'll have a new coach with the departure of Chad Dahlman, but there's talent returning and coming up. Jessica Rago is a promising freshman pitcher.
9) Hampshire (11-19): Under first-year coach Stacey Stepek, the Whip-Purs showed a lot of progress this season. They'll miss four-year standout pitcher Jennifer Hurst but sophomore Haley Widmayer has been waiting in the wings and has shown she can get people out. Stepek is going to work hard to get her players more involved in travel ball and that will do nothing but make the Whips better in the future.
10) St. Edward (13-14): The Green Wave loses five seniors, including NIU recruit Kali Kossakowski, but another promising freshman pitcher, Lindsay Zdroik, is back and after a successful freshman season, she should be even better for coach Jaci Corn's team next season. Sophomore Ryann Scully and freshman Allison Stratman are two of the better hitting players coming back.
11) Streamwood (5-22): The Sabres struggled for wins and will miss the senior leadership of Brittany Delao and Kylie Jambor but with junior Kaitlyn Hedger and freshman Jessica Daley both getting valuable experience in the circle this season, Streamwood could be more competitive next year.
12) Larkin (3-26): It's been a tough couple of years for coach Anne Vogt but she's the most positive person I know, and she'll keep working hard to turn Larkin back into a winner. She only loses four seniors, so if she can get her returning girls to stick with the game, look for the Royals to be better next year.
13) Dundee-Crown (4-21): It's also been a tough few years for the Chargers and coach Tracey Beatty but again, youth is being served at D-C. The Chargers lose only two seniors, one of them No. 1 pitcher Amanda Eissler, so the thought process with D-C is the same as with Larkin.
14) Westminster Christian (12-9): The Warriors turned a corner this season with the program's first Class 1A regional championship. With only four seniors graduating and No. 1 pitcher Rachel Fugiel back the regional title thing could become a habit.
Get the picture here? Each and every team in the area has excellent, and now varsity-tested, players returning.
The 2014 season should be a fun one.
And before we put the Fox Valley softball season to bed, we need to take a moment to thank all the area coaches for their cooperation and communication this season. There's no better group anywhere. And best of luck to Jason Schaal and Chad Dahlman in all their future endeavors. Both class acts, they will be missed.
Finally, don't miss or forget about the Tenth Annual Fehlman Memorial Senior All-Star Game at Judson University on Monday, June 10, at 6:30 p.m. It's a special night and we'd love to see the biggest crowd ever for the 10th anniversary.