Softball: Third in state, then second — Antioch takes aim at state championship

Prior to coach Anthony Rocco’s arrival, the Antioch softball team wouldn’t exactly qualify as chopped liver.

From 2005 through 2011, the Sequoits never had a losing season and, in fact, won 20 games three times, raised 3 regional title plaques and took third in the state in 2010.

But since Rocco took over in 2012, things have been elevated to an entirely different level. Antioch has won 305 games during his 13 seasons and his teams have won no less than 25 games in each of the past 8 seasons.

The 2022 team took third in Class 3A and last year’s squad was the state runner-up. Rocco’s teams have won 10 regional titles in a row and 3 sectional titles in a row. Rocco noted over the last 8 seasons, no other Class 3A team has a higher winning percentage or has won more regional titles.

And this year’s Sequiots version, with Michigan State pitching commit Jacey Schuler as the headliner in her senior year, has its eye on another long postseason run, sitting at 19-3 currently and enjoying yet another banner season in a year of change with multiple position switches and many underclassmen plying their trade in the batting order.

“All of us have really good team chemistry,” said Schuler, a 2-time captain of the Daily Herald Lake County All-Area softball team, who was knocking on the door of 1,000-career strikeouts earlier week. “Besides our skill set, we get along well as a team and that makes us good every year.”

Schuler said the success of the program caught her eye as a youngster.

“Growing up I always knew I wanted to play for Antioch,” she said. “I knew it was a good program. There are a lot of girls who look up to the program and want to play for Antioch.”

Schuler’s freshman sister, Tegan, had a front-row seat the last 3 years, watching her older sister do her thing.

“I saw girls having a lot of fun,” she said. “It was hard to sit around and watch them. I was excited to get here and play. Not only were they having fun, but they were good.”

Rocco, a geometry teacher at Waukegan High School, previously coached softball at now-defunct St. Joe’s in Westchester, Ridgewood in Norridge (2 regional titles) and Jacobs in Algonquin. Rocco’s coaching chops can be traced to his parents, who both coached at Morton College.

His recipe for the Sequoits’ long-term success echoes what the Schuler sisters said.

“The girls have great chemistry and the parents do a great job getting their daughters on top-tier travel teams and getting them pitching and hitting levels,” said Rocco, who also has coached travel softball in years past and has coached nearly 40 all-state players and a pair of all-Americans at Antioch, as well as watched more than 20 student-athletes go on to play at the next level.

“A lot of our kids grew up watching girls like Piper Foote (Western Illinois), Gabby Debevec (Illinois), Eden Echevarria (Wisconsin), Hailey Webb (Appalachian State) and Emily Brecht (UIC) play at a high level and saw how successful they were.”

Rocco, a Nazareth Academy grad who played football at College of DuPage and Rockford University, is proud of this year’s team because of the changes it has embraced.

The top seven spots in the batting order are usually occupied by 5 sophomores and 1 freshman. Antioch is hitting .319 this season with its 7-9 hitters — sophomore Kailyn Bockwoldt, senior Miranda Gomez and senior Aubrey Ultsch — checking in at .282, .300 and .333, respectively, and collectively above the .300 goal for that 7-9 collective.

Plus myriad position changes, including sophomore Sam Hillner (3B), sophomore Jadynn Ruiz (2B), Gomez (RF, headed to Central Michigan on a cheerleading scholarship), Tegan Schuler (CF), sophomore Addison Webb (C) and senior Grace Green (playing first after catching the last 2 years) have resulted in the highest fielding percentage in Rocco’s tenure (.982). Sophomore shortstop Claire Schuyler continues to stand out at shortstop.

“We have been playing pretty darned good defense all-around,” said Rocco whose team doubled its season home run total from 7 to 14 in a recent 3-game span. “This year, it’s been very consistent.”

Webb said Antioch has another key secret weapon at its disposal.

“We aren’t here just to play softball,” she said. “We are one big family.”

Antioch, which had been nationally ranked this season by USA Today Sports/NFCA and is No. 4 in the state this week in the Illinois Softball Coaches Association 3A poll, holds key wins over Class 4A DuKane Conference toughies Wheaton North and St. Charles North, as well as Lincoln-Way East. The Sequoits did lose a doubleheader to 2023 Class 2A state runner-up Beecher and were tripped up in conference play by Grayslake Central. Antioch has won 5 of the 6 Northern Lake County Conference titles since the conference formed.

“Sometimes, things don’t play out like you want them to,” Schuyler said of the Grayslake Central game. “For us you can never go into a game thinking the other team is easy. I feel like that game definitely was a motivator for us.”

Rocco said he doesn’t look at the sustained success of the program as any sort of pressure. He takes it at face value.

“We have a large bull's-eye on us,” he said. “When we play teams, we see their best. When you have success, teams want to knock you off. The pressure doesn’t get to us.”

With the calendar flipping to May and the Class 3A postseason being around the corner, the Sequoits (the school’s nickname traces back to Sequoit Creek back in the 1800s for those likely wondering) aren’t hiding their long-term goals.

“Our first goal is to win those 5 games in the playoffs (to get to the state semifinals),” Rocco said. “The kids are looking forward to playing more of these top-tier schools.”

“The mindset is to play like every game is your last,” said Schuyler, who lauded the work of the Antioch coaching staff in preparing the team for the spring grind. “I think we all want 3-2-1. We took third and then second last year. That would be an amazing accomplishment.”

Jacey Schuler, recently named Antioch’s female athlete of the year, said the end goal is obvious, but work must still be done to arrive there.

“We all have the same goal of working hard toward that,” she said. “You have to stay focused and not look into the future. We had a tough loss against Grayslake Central, but we learned from it. It humbled us a little and it’s made us work harder. We can’t think about state until we get there.”

Ace pitcher Jacey Schuler, right, and her Antioch teammates have had a lot to celebrate the past few seasons. They hope for more when postseason play kicks off later this month. Mark Busch/
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