Softball: Scouting the Fox Valley
Aurora Central Catholic ChargersCoach: Tom Babyar
Conference: Metro Suburban
2015 record: 12-21, 4-8
Top returning athletes: Paige Miller (sr., P), Bridget Butler (sr., 2B), Julia Dickerson (sr., OF).
Top newcomers: Danielle Brown (fr., P/3B), Sarah Siebert (jr., C/3B), Jessica Eallonardo (jr., C), Tressa Cwinski (fr., 1B/OF), Claire McCarthy (fr., 1B/OF), Val Litrenta (jr., SS), Ricia White (sr., OF), Hannah Baxter (jr., OF/3B/2B), Maddie Reinecke (jr., OF).
Season outlook: The Chargers only have 2 returning starters. One of them is 4-year starter Miller, who will play college softball at Waubonsee. She will do everything for the Chargers, from pitching to fielding to hitting. "Paige has some of the softest hands I've ever run into," Babyar said. "She can play anywhere on the field. She can play third , short and probably outfield. She'll pitch too but she can play anywhere. She gets a good jump on the ball. We need her." Miller has a cousin on the team, Danielle Brown, who Babyar also expects to make a big impact. "She's all business at practice," Babyar said. "She is here to play." Eallonardo is recovering from foot surgery, and with only 24 players out for softball at all levels Babyar doesn't have room for many more injuries. Litrenta is taking over at shortstop. "She's surprising me," Babyar said. "She's hitting the ball real well." Dickerson is a slapper with varsity experience, and White "has some pop, and she can run," Babyar said. Improving defense will be key to challenge the teams Babyar said are conference favorites, Glenbard South and St. Edward. "Defensively we are pretty average but it could come around," Babyar said. "Last year we just couldn't get the hits with runners in scoring position. We'll see if this team can."
Aurora Christian EaglesCoach: Rich Hazlett (4th year)
Conference: Northeastern Athletic
Top returning athletes: Sadie Nichols (sr., SS), Mikala Woodfork (sr., 1B), Kathleen Zavasnik (jr., C), Brianna Rossi (so.) Raeann Holloway (so., P).
Top newcomers: Janae Holloway (fr., ), Grace Follino (fr.), Tori Cammarano (fr.). Season outlook: Following a winless season the Eagles move from the SCC to the NAC. They only have 3 seniors and 1 junior with a roster made up mostly of sophomores. "We are a very young team," Hazlett said. "We have a lot of good returning sophomores and had a nice group of freshmen come in. The ladies put in a lot of work in the off-season and came in last week ready to work." Nichols is a 2-year letterwinner who will be a key at the plate and in the field. Rossi was voted the most improved player last year. Holloway will take many of the innings in the circle. Aurora Christian's freshmen "have come in with some great skills sets. I anticipate utilizing them as much as possible this spring," Hazlett said. Hazlett is optimistic of how the Eagles will stack up in their new conference. "It is difficult to say how we will fit in," Hazlett said. "I feel like this conference has teams that are competitive and I believe we will be able to compete with them. As I look at the skills that we have, I see that we have work to do, but doesn't everyone? What is more important to me is how the players' relationships are developing. This group of ladies is special and they are starting to come together in a unique way. When I see great teams I see teams that have players with great relationships. I am seeing some great relationships developing along with players skills. This gives me great encouragement for this season."
Bartlett HawksCoach: Jim Wolfsmith (13th year, 296-136-4)
Conference: Upstate Eight Valley
2016 record: 21-11-1, 13-7
Top returning athletes: Nina Pavell (sr., OF), Sydney Quagliano (sr., OF), Danielle Kirby (sr., P/SS), Alyssa Nowak (sr., 1B/P), Katie Fornoff (sr., 2B/SS), Elyse Hickey (jr., 3B), Amber Pagan (so., SS/P), Danielle Kleeman (so., C/1B/3B), Taylor Rotondo (so., C/1B/3B).
Top newcomers: Elisabeth Di Nuzzo (jr., OF), Caitlin Flippinger (so., IF), Gianna Stornello (so., OF).
Season outlook: In Wolfsmith's 13 years as head coach of the Hawks this could be one of his most talented teams. Bartlett's top asset is its returning pitching. Kirby (Aquinas College) was the team's workhorse last year, pitching 126 innings and going 14-10 with a 3.00 ERA and 130 strikeouts against just 18 walks. She also has great range and a strong arm at SS in addition to hitting .419 with 11 RBI last year. Pagan, as a freshman, threw 51 innings, going 3-1. "We're blessed that we have both our pitchers back and Kirby and Pagan are already ahead of the game," Wolfsmith said. Offensively, the Hawks return a ton of firepower including Hickey (Evansville), the team's leading hitter last year at .449 with 3 HRs, 26 RBI and 15 doubles. Nowak (DePauw) hit .4121 with 7 HRs, 33 RBI and 11 doubles, while Fornoff was at .386 with 17 RBI. Bartlett hit .357 as a team last season. "We return a lot of our top hitters and our young kids are really talented," Wolfsmith said. "They've come together as a team already and they're displaying the attributes you need to be a championship team. I feel real comfortable in our 1-8 hitters and our defense is going to be a strength. The outfield is the best I've had in the last 10 years and the offense has the potential to be dangerous. All the parts you need to be successful are there and these girls are super focused. I've been really impressed with their early-season workouts."
Batavia BulldogsCoach: Lupe Castellanos (4th year, 38-56)
Conference: Upstate Eight River
2015 record: 19-17, 12-10
Top returning athletes: Toni Galas (jr., CF/SS), Rachael Lovestrand (jr., P/SS), Kaylan Waldron (so., P/OF), Alyssa Klemm (sr, 1B/P), Ashley McNamara (sr., 3B), Jena Bendoraitis (jr., C/3B), Breiann Cruz (sr., C).
Season outlook: Batavia turned a bit of a corner last year with a winning record, and the Bulldogs have several key pieces back from that team looking to climb even further. Galas (Evansville) batted .370 last year with 11 stolen bases. Lovestrand was an all-conference selection who hit .389 at the plate and had a .229 ERA in the circle. Bendoraitis batted .344., and McNamara (Carroll College) hit .389. Klemm (North Central College) and Cruz (Benedictine University) also will play college softball. "I think our strengths are depth at pitcher and we have quite a few girls back with varsity experience," Castellanos said. "I think some of the key areas that will determine how good we can be this season will be how our team defense does. We have to be able to limit our mistake on defense." Castellanos said his fourth Batavia team could be his best. "Our overall goals are to compete as hard as we can on every pitch and to improve from last year's record," Castellanos said. "If we play the way we are capable of playing I feel we can compete for the conference title this season and be able to go deep in the playoffs. I think overall St. Charles North and East are the teams to beat. Both teams have been at the top for a long time. I expect Geneva to be really good this year. I feel we have the team to compete for the conference title with these teams."
Burlington Central RocketsCoach: Erica Maisto (1st year)
Conference: Big Northern East
2016 record: 19-17, 9-4
Top returning athletes: Emily Kisch (sr., P/OF), Jill Neisendorf (sr., 2B), Alex Rabe (sr., OF), Kristina Ahlers (jr., SS), Ashley Ratliff (jr., P), Gretchen Schrubbe (jr., 3B/C), Kelly Wiater (jr, C/1B).
Top newcomers: Kassie Kramer (jr., OF), Sarah Kinney (so., OF/util), Danielle Yurgil (so., util.), Samantha Dobson (fr., P/util), Lindsay Jamrozek (fr., 1B/OF), Maissie Rabe (fr., P/OF).
Season outlook: Maisto, a former Rocket pitching great who is also a former Daily Herald All-Area captain and Athlete of the Year, takes over the program she was once a standout performer for. She inherits a wealth of experience that starts with experience in the circle in Kisch, who went 8-5 despite back problems last year, when she also got on a roll and pitched the Rockets to a sectional championship appearance. She's also the team's leading returning hitter (.505). Ratliff also returns to the circle after going 6-7 last season. Ahlers hit .404 last year with 6 HRs and 31 RBI, while Neisendorf, Schrubbe and Wiater are entering their third year as varsity players. "Our team goal is to win a conference championship and be playing competitive softball when the postseason begins," said Maisto, who is assisted by longtime program coach Lowell Oranger and another former Rocket standout Sarah Kisch, Emily's older sister. "Our strengths are our pitchers and catchers and the fact so many of our players play a lot of games in the summer. We have a lot of experience. They've been practicing really hard, they're a very coachable group and they've been very accepting of what the new coaching staff is giving them."
Cary-Grove TrojansCoach: Tammy Olson (23rd year, 425-289-3)
Conference: Fox Valley Valley
2015 record: 10-21, 3-7
Top returning athletes: Brianne Prank (sr.,1B/C), Colleen Kaveney (jr., OF), Alyssa Gurgone (jr., SS)
Top newcomers: Krissy Weber (jr., P/1B), Sam Wageman (jr., OF), Alea Charier (jr., 3B), Victoria Beatty (jr., OF), Taryn Ladd (jr., C), Rachel Stanley (jr., P), Anna Whitaker (so., C), Nicollette Richardi (so., 2B), Emma Hill (fr., P/utility).
Season outlook: Prank and Gurgone give the Trojans two varsity-tested players on the infield. "We are returning a veteran shortstop and first baseman to solidify our infield and we look forward to utilizing our speed in the outfield," said Olson. Weber, Stanley and Hill are all new pitchers to the varsity, but bring with them promise. "We are excited this year to have a solid and well-rounded pitching staff," said Olson. In the FVC Valley, Olson noted McHenry will be a team to watch on the offensive end, as will Dundee-Crown, which she pointed out returns three underclassmen who earned all-conference honors a year ago. "Our goal is to grow more unified every day," she said.
Crystal Lake South GatorsCoach: Scott Busam (12th year)
Conference: Fox Valley (Valley)
2016 record: 18-11
Top returning athletes: Taylor Kassel (sr., IF), Brookelynn Maddox (sr., 1B), Sam Schettl (jr., OF), Brittany Baker (jr., OF), Carly Chovanec (so., IF/C), Sam Burgard (jr., P).
Top newcomers: Annalisa Toniolo (jr., OF), Maddie Bush (fr., IF/C), Hannah Corcoran (fr., IF/C), Christina Toniolo (fr., P/1B).
Season outlook: If nothing else, what Gators' coach Scott Busam wants to see this season is his team finish games. CL South lost half its games last season by 1 or 2 runs. "Our main goal this season is to improve our play in the Valley," said Busam, assisted again by Mark Hardie and former Gator and Winona State star Kaitlin Hardie. "We lost a handful of close games last season, some in extra innings. We'll focus on being a tougher team mentally and physically. We want to finish games this year." Among the returning players for the Gators is sophomore IF/C Chovanec, an all-area selection last year who hit .432 with 4 home runs and 19 RBI. Also back are senior infielders Kassel (.421, 18 RBI) and Maddox (.301, 15 RBI) as well as junior OF Baker (.345) and junior pitcher Burgard. While the Gators across the board are young, Busam is excited about his team's prospects this season. "We've got a really nice group of freshmen and they're very coachable," he said. "We've got a lot of young kids but this is a very hard-working group."
Dundee-Crown ChargersCoach: Tracy Beatty (9th year)
Conference: Fox Valley (Valley)
2016 record: 16-11, 4-6
Top returning athletes: Megan Emerson (jr., 1B), Jessica McVicker (jr., OF), Andrea Conway (so., 2B), Sydney Ruggles (so., P), Claire Weeks (so., C), Deanna Origer (so., SS).
Top newcomers: Hannah Gestrich (fr., SS).
Season outlook: The youth movement continues at Dundee-Crown, which despite having no seniors does have a fair amount of varsity experience returning from its first winning season in nearly 20 years. That includes Ruggles, who won 10 games last season and had over 150 strikeouts. Origer (.500, 23 RBI) and Conway (.434, 20 RBI) give the Chargers a solid middle infield and Weeks (.467, 21 RBI) has a solid year behind the plate at the varsity level. Emerson (.409, 4 HRs, 22 RBI) will again be a rock for D-C at first base. Conway, Ruggles and Weeks were All-Area selections last spring. "We want to approach the season with a more competitve attitude and focus on finishing strong," said Beatty. "A weakness of ours is that we have a very young team. However, our significant strength is we are a cohesive, hardowrking family unit that is focused on competing at a higher level."
Elgin MaroonsCoach: Dr. Nick Bumbales (3rd year, 17-48)
Conference: Upstate Eight River
2015 record: 3-29, 2-22
Top returning players: Jessica Rago (sr., P/OF), Madison Latham (sr., C/IF), Jemiyah Stewart (sr., 3B), Rachel Turner (sr., SS/OF), Ayanna Herrera (sr., OF), Cassidy Sell (jr., 1B/OF), Dannah Perryman (jr., 3B/OF/P)
Top newcomers: Kayla Thomas (sr., OF), Adrianna Bell (sr., IF/OF), Anais Barraza (sr., 2B/SS), Amanda Rosado (jr., 2B/SS), Alex Beyer (jr., 2B/OF), Katie Anderson (jr., OF), Jasmine Jackson (jr., OF), Deavian Kimbrough (jr., OF), Genesis Alfaro (jr., OF), Dyamond Williams (jr., OF), Dagmawit Girmay (jr., OF), Lexi Ruiz (fr., OF).
Season outlook: The Maroons return five starters from last year's team. Bumbales, now in his 28th year of association with Elgin High, said keys for his team include improved situational hitting along with having new and/or existing players adapt to new positions either in the field or the batting order. Rago, a two-time all-UEC honorable-mention selection, returns to the circle after logging 148 strikeouts in 124 ⅓ innings of work last year. Latham, Turner and Stewart are three-year varsity performers and will be relied on heavily, while Bumbales is looking for Sell and Herrera to provide middle-of-the-order production. Freshman Ruiz and Thomas will provide speed on the base paths. "We have six or seven players who have previous varsity experience and have produced for the team at one time or another," said Bumbales. Depth also will be a positive for the Maroons. "There is a little more depth up the middle of the defense," said Bumbales. "There is more than one option at each of those positions. Our depth by position will be much better." Bumbales said the UEC River will again be loaded with tough teams. "It will be important for us to get off to a good start to give us some confidence heading into a very difficult conference schedule," he said. Rago also hit .361 with 3 homers and 16 RBI last season.
Geneva VikingsCoach: Greg Dierks
Conference: Upstate Eight River
2015 record: 23-9, 16-6
Top returning athletes: Sarah Baurer (sr., OF), Rachel Fanella (sr., P), Emily Plocinski (sr., P), Taylor Mraz (sr., IF/OF), Kyla Chenier (jr., OF), Kaitlyn Plocinski (jr., C/SS), Annika Radabaugh (jr., 1B), Molly Wrenn (jr., 3B) Kate Geary (so., IF/OF).
Season outlook: One of the deans of area coaches, Dierks' 27th season of coaching promises to be a good one. Radabaugh, committed to the University of Indianapolis, batted .434 last year with a team-high 29 RBI. Baurer scored a team-best 29 runs. Kaitlyn Plocinski (Grand Valley State) batted .410. Mraz (.372 average) Chenier (.339), Wrenn (.282) and Geary (.351) give Geneva plenty of returning experience at the plate. Pitching also looks to be in good hands with Emily Plocinski (Wisconsin Stevens Point), who went 10-5 with a 1.88 ERA, and Fanella, who was 13-3 with a 1.79 ERA. "We return 9 players from last year's team and they are working very hard," Dierks said. "We have high expectations for ourselves and we will need to make an all-out commitment to the team in order to accomplish our goals. That commitment combined with doing all the little things right will give us a chance to be successful." As good as Geneva has been Dierks knows it has been an uphill fight trying to catch St. Charles East and St. Charles North for UEC River supremacy. "East and North finished 1-2 last year so the race starts with them," Dierks said. "We are striving to have the consistency that those two programs have shown year in and year out so that we can compete with them for first place."
Hampshire Whip-PursCoach: Kelly Wasliewski (1st year)
Conference: Fox Valley (Fox)
2016 record: 13-18, 6-6
Top returning athletes: Ellie Lapi (sr., 3B/C), Joslyn Nelson (sr., P/2B/OF), Aly Snider (sr., C/SS/2B), Emily Williamson (Sr., 1B/OF), Peyton De Chant (jr., SS/1B), Erin Doyle (jr., 2B/OF), Renee Malecke (jr., OF), Lauren Egger (jr., OF), Melissa Esparaza (so., 3B), Jasmine Lopez (so., P/2B).
Top newcomers: Sarah Bowen (fr., OF), Morgan Haefling (fr., OF).
Season outlook: Wasliewski takes over the Whip-Purs' program after coaching at Streamwood last year and the former Burlington Central assistant will be joined in the dugout by Cray Allen, who was the head coach at BC when Wasliewski was his assistant there. The biggest challenge for Hampshire and its new coaching staff will be replacing four-year varsity starter Haley Widmayer in the pitchers circle. "It's been kind of hard with a whole new coaching staff but Cray has been working really hard with the pitchers and catchers," Wasliewski said. "We're throwing a lot of different stuff at them and we'll need to use our first few games to get focused and see where people are going to be. Obviously when you lose someone who was pretty dominant like Haley was it's tough to fill that spot." The pitching duties will fall to Nelson and Lopez and Wasliewski says, "they've both been working really hard in the offseason. We're trying to focus on them hitting spots and being consistent." Offensively, the Whips return one of the top bats in the area in De Chant (Loyola recruit, .404, 3 HRs, 24 RBI). Snider (.446, 3 HRs, 26 RBI) also has some pop, as do Lapi (.304) and Egger (.347, 21 RBI).
Huntley Red RaidersCoach: Mark Petryniec (13th year, 227-192)
Conference: Fox Valley Valley
2015 record: 24-9, 6-4
Top returning athletes: Hayley O'Mara (sr., 2B), Jessica Shields (sr., CF), Megan Baczewski (sr., 3B), Caitlin Brown (jr., OF), Tiffany Giese (so., P/RF), Kateri Conklin (so., P).
Top newcomers: Jenna Lawler (sr., IF/P), Rylie Porretto (jr., C/OF), CJ Adams (so., IF/OF/P), Jackie Dorin (so., IF), Taylor Pacana (so., IF/C), Cailyn Pienschke (so., IF/C).
Season outlook: Huntley is coming off a 2015 season where it won 24 games and a regional title. Eight of those players return. "We also have a very nice mix of very talented underclassmen," said Petryniec. "We are looking forward to the contributions our new players can bring this season." O'Mara hit .459 with 9 homers and 37 RBI last year, while Shields was a .430 hitter with 31 stolen bases and 28 RBI. Giese went 13-5 in the circle and hit .350 with 22 RBI. Baczewski hit .291 with 6 homers and 27 RBI, while Conklin hit .286 and was 10-3 in the circle. "Hitting has traditionally been a strength of our program and we look forward to continuing with our success," said Petryniec. Giese and Conklin went a combined 23-8 in the circle a year ago. "We have depth at pitching and look forward to Tiffany and Kateri contributing this season," said Petryniec. The coach said improving on the team's defensive fielding percentage will be a key to success. "We are excited about the opportunity to compete this season and look forward to the challenges ahead on our schedule," said Petryniec. "If everyone remains healthy, we should be in a good position to compete for the Fox Valley title and make a run in the postseason. Petryniec sees a competitive FVC Valley race on the horizon. "The Fox Valley will be very competitive this season," he said. "I believe every team has the potential to take the title this year. This is the most balanced the conference has been over the last decade."
Jacobs Golden EaglesCoach: Katie O'Brien (2nd year)
Conference: Fox Valley (Valley)
2016 record: 16-19, 5-5
Top returning athletes: Sarah Murray (sr., SS), Emily Borg (sr., 1B), Teaghan Richman (sr., util.), Katie Borchert (sr., OF), Alexis Addante (jr., util.), Kerri Healy (so., util.), Jess Mrzlak (so., C).
Top newcomers: Brittany Feldmann (jr., P), Katie Armstrong (fr., P).
Season outlook: Now in her second year as the head varsity coach, O'Brien is looking for the Golden Eagles to turn the record around and be an above .500 team that contends for the FVC Valley title. There's plenty of experience back to accomplish that. Murray (.386, 10 2Bs, 18 SBs) is one of the fastest players in the area while Borg (.368, 7 HRs, 10 2Bs, 36 RBI) and Healy (.366, 5 HRs, 12 2Bs, 25 RBI) give the lineup some punch. Addante and Richman each had 8 wins in the circle last year and are joined on the varsity this spring by promising freshmen Feldmann and Armstrong, which will give O'Brien some depth to work with. "We've talked as a team and having a winning season is definitely a goal of ours," said O'Brien, a Jacobs grad herself. "After starting out 1-7 last season we dug ourselves into a hole that made it difficult to get out of. This year we expect to be competitive in conference with seven experienced varsity players. We expect to come out a lot stronger than we started last season." O'Brien says that while Huntley and McHenry may have the early edge in the Valley, anything can happen. "Last year everyone in conference seemed to surprise each other," she said. "Most teams split in conference play, some teams snuck up on one another and ultimately you couldn't predict who was going to win on a given day. It made things more exciting during conference play."
Kaneland KnightsCoach: Mike Kuefler (1st year)
Conference: Northern Illinois Big XII East
2015 record: 25-9, 8-0
Top returning athletes: Meg Cohrs (sr., 3B), Morgan Weber (jr., SS), Courtney Davis (sr., P), Rachel Goress (jr., CF), Mary Lynn Clausen (sr. C) Hannah Theobald (so., 1B), Alison Jesionoski (jr., P/OF), Destiny Cowsert (sr., OF).
Top newcomers: Alexis Abruzzo (So., OF/2B), Hayley Roach (fr., C/INF), Katie Kurzrock (so., OF/2B).
Season outlook: Kaneland is coming off a dream season -- conference, regional, sectional and supersectional champions who ended up taking third at the Class 3A state tournament. Kuefler was an assistant on that team and now takes over for Peter Goff as head coach. He'll have to replace several key stars including his daughter and 4-year starter Paige Kuefler, plus ace pitcher Angie Morrow. Cohrs (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater) and Weber give him a couple big returning bats in the middle of the order. Clausen (Wisconsin Lutheran) and the freshman Roach -- whose sister Lexi was a key contributer on the Knights' state team, will take over for Paige Kuefler behind the plate. Davis and Jesionoski have experience in the circle. "Our team is young with a great group of athletes," coach Kuefler said. "They get along well, work hard, and have a pretty tight vision of what they are looking for this season. We are going to continue being a great hitting team. Our overall goals as a team will be to continue the winning tradition at Kaneland High School, and be the competitive team we know we can be." The Knights should get a pretty good idea of how they stack up for another long postseason run by seeing how they fare in the NI Big XII East. "I think the conference race is going to be as tight as always," Kuefler said. "All the coaches in our conference prepare their athletes well. I have a lot of respect for the coaching staffs within our conference."
Larkin RoyalsCoach: Anne Vogt (5th year, 16-105)
Conference: Upstate Eight River
2015 record: 6-26, 4-15
Top returning athletes: Sam Wahl (sr., CF), Megan Chwee (sr., OF), Sophie Young (jr., C), Haley Bohne (so., SS)
Top newcomers: Hannah Gross (jr., P), Gloria Stoltz (so., C/3B)
Season outlook: Vogt lists three goals for her team in 2016: play competitive softball in a tough conference; win more games than 2015 along with working hard and being dedicated. Larkin returns 7 starters from last year's team. Vogt feels pitching will be a key with Gross and senior Karisa Williams both in their first year pitching on the varsity, while senior Kelly Doherty did not pitch last year. "We have a new pitching staff that is working extremely hard," Vogt said. The coach sees St. Charles East and St. Charles North as top contenders in the UEC River. Bohne was an all-conference performer a year ago after hitting .465 with 7 doubles, 3 triples, 4 homers and 22 RBI.
Rosary RoyalsCoach: Megan Tracy (2nd year, 5-17)
Conference: Girls Catholic Athletic
2016 record: 5-17
Top returning athletes: Emma Molenhouse (sr., P/SS), Sarah Willman (jr., P/1B), Natayla Flowers (jr., 2B/OF), Anna VanGundry (so., C), Xandria Olsen (so., OF), Aubrey Fischer (jr., 3B), Maura Vanborgaert (so., P/SS/2B).
Top newcomers: Riley McCue (so., P).
Season outlook: Molenhouse (St. Noberts College) is the captain and leader of a Rosary team trying to take a step forward this spring. "Without her last year we would have struggled," the second-year coach Tracy said. "She was a warrior and pitched the majority of our innings giving us the chance to compete with schools like St. Francis and Montini." Willman has commited to St. Ambrose and will help with the pitching duties. "Sarah has grown into her role as a strong pitcher that will see a ton of innings for us taking some of the pressure off of Emma," Tracy said. "She has good speed with great spin and I am looking forward to what she is going to do for us." Flowers is a competitor who is a key defender either at second base or outfield. Tracy likes what VanGundry brings behind the plate. "Anna is a phenomenal athlete who is maturing into a great softball player," Tracy said. "She is young and I am excited to see her grow in the next three years. She is going to throw out baserunners with the fantastic arm she has." Olsen gives the Royals range running down balls in center field. McCue played a few innings last year but will take on a bigger role. "She has been working on her pitching but even better her position at first base," Tracy said. "She is very athletic and is a competitor. She is going to make great plays and make those stretches we need at first base." The Royals aren't letting last year's record discourage them. "Even though we were 5-17, our players have matured into smart softball players," Tracy said. "Many of our players are juniors and sophomores and we are making a program that is going to be competitive. Our pitching is much stronger than last year and we have depth. I think we are going to surprise a lot of teams. If we stay in the game and don't give up, which we had a tendency last year to do, we will make the steps we need to win and compete with the teams that we play."
St. Charles East Saints
Coach: Jarod Gutesha (1st year)
Conference: Upstate Eight River
2015 record: 29-6, 20-2
Top returning athletes: Catherine Crossen (sr., 1B/OF), Jordan Hall (sr., P/1B), Katie Kolb (sr., OF), Kelly Rinker (sr., IF), Delaney Devor (jr., P/U), Jordan Hieber (Jr., IF), Sarah Kreiner (jr., U), Rylee Stout (jr., C/3B), Madelyn Candre (so., OF).
Top newcomers: Megan Daly (jr., 1B/3B), Sara Campagna (so., C/3B), Madelyn Stout (fr., U), Paige Ligocki (fr., C/1B/3B).
Season outlook: Gutesha takes over as the head coach after spending the past 7 years as Kelly Horan's assistant. He inherits a team stocked with talent including four players already headed to play college softball: Kolb (Winona State), Rinker (Olivet Nazarene), Hall (Minnesota State University Moorhead), and Rylee Stout (Winona State). Rinker and Stout are both returning All-Area selections. Rinker was a sure-handed glove at shortstop who also led off and hit .500 with 63 hits, 14 stolen bases and 43 runs scored while only making 1 error on defense. Stout blasted 7 home runs last year and also had 8 doubles, a .685 slugging percentage and .405 batting average with 35 RBI and 29 runs scored. Hall and Heiber both made the All-Area second team last season with more big numbers at the plate, giving the Saints a nucleus that should once again be able to put plenty of runs on the board while having the pitching to limit the opposition. "The Upstate Eight River should be a competitive race again this year," Gutesha said. "St. Charles North and Geneva are always good games. Our team has a lot of returning varsity experience. We want to again be in the hunt for a conference title and make a run in the postseason."
St. Charles North North StarsCoach: Tom Poulin (6th year, 130-38)
Conference: Upstate Eight River
2015 record: 29-6, 18-4
Top returning athletes: Jordyn Wolfe (jr., OF), Jillian Waslawski (so., P/1B), Amanda James (sr., 3B/2B/C), Allison Hausl (sr., SS/P), Samantha Hausl (sr., C), Allison Moberg (jr., 1B/C).
Top newcomers: Ashlyn Jozefowicz (so., OF/SS), Natalie Walters (jr., OF/P).
Season outlook: The North Stars shook off the disappointment of finishing behind St. Charles East in the conference last year to win the second sectional title in school history. They have the pitcher back from that team in Waslawski, along with several key players like Wolfe (Louisville), James (St. Leo University), Allison Hausl (UW Parkside) and Samantha Hausl (UW Parkside). "Our expectations are the same each season; to use the regular season to improve though our experiences, come together as a true team and grow into the roles we need to play for the team to be the most successful it can be," Poulin said. "We feel that, if we can do that, we can compete at a high level during the state tournament." The speedy Wolfe can get on base and then create havoc for opponents, and she also saves runs with her play defensively. The Hausl sisters and James provide plenty of varsity experience, strong defense and dangerous bats at the plate. As always for the North Stars, who won conference every year from 2009 through 2013 but neither of the past two years, goals are high. "We are working to be champions," Poulin said. "We need to build off of last year and the success we earned. It was not easy last season and we can't forget that. We have to be ready to do more this season in order to achieve more. That is our goal; to overachieve and accomplish more than we did last season."
St. Edward Green WaveCoach: Paul Netzel (1st year)
Conference: Metro Suburban West
2016 record: 21-9-1, 7-5
Top returning athletes: Lindsay Zdroik (sr., P/1B), Allison Stratman (sr., C), Rachel Lesh (sr., 3B), Emily Stapay (jr., 1B/P), Devyn Ernst (jr., SS), Jackie Boydston (jr., CF), Mallory Rejman (so., 2B).
Top newcomers: Clarissa Vargas (sr., OF), Kaitlin Freeman (jr., IF), Ashley Soto (jr., OF), Preston Reeves (so., IF), Sarah Mendoza (fr., IF), Katelyn Davidson (fr., OF), Lindsey Mauritzen (fr., OF), Jessica Kramp (fr., OF).
Season outlook: Netzel takes over the Green Wave program. which last year won 20 games under former coach Jaci Corn for the first time in 10 years. And the new coach has plenty of returning talent to work with, starting with the battery of Zdroik (Valparaiso recruit, 16-6-1, 1.48 ERA, 202 Ks, .527 BA, 4 HRs, 26 RBI) and Stratman (Kenyon College, .426, 5 HRs, 31 RBI). The infield will be solid with Rejman and Ernst (.375, 20 RBI) up the middle with Lesh (.295) and a combination of Zdroik and Stapay manning the corners. Stapay also pitches and was 5-3 with a 2.55 ERA last year. "Our goal is to improve upon last year's results record-wise, conference-wise and go as far in the state tournament as our pitching will take us," Netzel said. "With the returning battery of Zdroik and Stratman we like our chances to compete against the stronger teams in our conference (Glenbard South and Riverside-Brookfield). The returning infield along with the addition of several talented freshmen to bolster our pitching staff and outfield has us looking to mid-April to gel as we enter the last half of the season."
Streamwood SabresCoach: Natalie Randazzo (1st year)
Conference: Upstate Eight River
2015 record: 8-23, 5-17
Top returning athletes: Jessica Daley (sr., P), Celena Feliciano (sr., OF), Nijal Desai (sr., 2B), Doshi Aditit (sr., 2B/OF), Becca Daley (jr., OF/P/2B), Melissa Hart (jr., 1B), Rebecca Roncone (so., C)
Top newcomers: Taylyr Crocilla (fr., P/3B), Laura Dietrich (fr., OF), Ariana Wolfrad (fr., P/3B/SS/OF), Corrine Angle (fr., 3B/C)
Season outlook: Randazzo takes over a Sabres team that returns six players from a year ago, including Jessica Daley who was an all-UEC River Division selection. "We are coming back strong with six returning athletes and have young dedicated athletes with impressive softball backgrounds," said Randazzo. Streamwood has 4 pitchers who will contribute. "We have four pitchers this season with a wide range of talents," said Randazzo. "Our pitchers and catchers will be a great advantage to our season. We have four powerful pitchers. Two of them are returning (Daley sisters) and we will have two freshmen pitchers (Crocilla and Wolfrad). Our athletes have the drive and passion to have a successful season." Randazzo said the squad has been hard at work with the bats during preseason practices. "They are willing to do whatever it takes for the success of the team," she said. "We are ready to work hard offensively and make strategic decisions." Randazzo's long-term goal is to continue to advance the fortunes of the program. "We have an athletic group of girls who are dedicated to the program," she said. "We want to win and build a successful program. Our goal is to be regional champions."
South Elgin StormCoach: Brad Reynard (1st year)
Conference: Upstate Eight Valley
2016 record: 12-18, 10-11
Top returning athletes: Stacy Bellack (sr., OF), Hannah Gordon (sr., 1B/DH), Alexa Rogalla (sr., 2B), Amber Derr (sr., SS), Bailey McClure (sr., C/3B), Stacy Bellack (jr., OF), Alisa Hargett (jr., OF), Brynn Warrick (jr., IF), Katie Koss (jr., P/IF), Allison Kaiser (jr., P/OF), Brianna Pena (jr., 1B/C).
Top newcomers: Haley Szubert (jr., OF), Paige Salamone (jr., IF/P), GraceAnne Aldred (jr., C/2B), Mariah Spivey (jr., SS/3B), Erin Bradford (jr., OF), Geneva Pollman (fr, OF/P).
Season outlook: The Storm is under new leadership as Reynard, an 18-year coaching veteran, takes over after spending the last four years as the head coach at Elmwood Park. There's good talent offensively and defensively returning at South Elgin, with inexperienced pitching being Reynard's No. 1 concern. Bellack (.412, 15 RBI) is the top returning threat offensively and has speed to burn in the outfield. Also back with significant varsity experience are Rogalla (.286), Hargett (.304), and Derr (.311). The Storm will look to Kaiser, who did get some varsity innings last year, and Koss to carry most of the pitching load with freshman Pollman waiting in the wings. "The talent we have and the talent in the building is looking pretty good," said Reynard, who also acknowledged his own learning curve as a coach coming from a Class 3A school and background. "The seniors will be the core and this will be a great experience for the juniors. Pitching is our biggest concern right now and the feedback I've gotten is that pitching and outfield play is where this team struggled last year. Pitching will be by committee. Geneva's going to be something special -- she's a tremendous athlete. Kaiser and Koss will log some innings as well as Mariah Spivey. Offensively I think we'll score some runs but the focus has been on pitching and defense. The kids are competing and they're enthusiastic about being at practice. We're setting the bar high because we expect to be there."
West Aurora BlackhawksCoach: Randy Hayslett
Conference: Upstate Eight Valley
2015 record: 28-9, 18-4
Top returning athletes: Hannah Beatus (jr., P), Cara Jimenez (sr., 3B), Carley Frauenhoff (sr., C), Kalle Rundle (jr., 1B), Corey McCreedy (sr., CF), Jess Vargas (sr., RF), Libby Zoppa (so., P).
Top newcomers:r. Grace Hunger (jr., SS), Victoria Harkless (jr., DP/1B), Sophia Delgado (fr., 2B).
Season outlook: Look out for the Blackhawks who have the nucleus of their 28-win team back this year including an ace in Beatus (18-6, 199 strikeouts, 1.63 ERA, committed to Grand Valley State). And when Beatus needs a break there's Zoppa, called up late last year as a freshman. All she did was go 6-0 with a 1.86 ERA including a no-hitter. The Blackhawks return 6 starters in all. Beatus also hit .330. Jimenez batted .393 with 4 home runs and 31 RBI. Frauenhoff hit .287 with 18 RBI. Rundle batted .344 with 3 home runs, 17 RBI and 27 runs. Aurora University commit McCreedy (.354, 17 RBI, 27 runs) and Vargas (.260 average, 3 home runs, 15 RBI) also bring experience. Of the newcomers, Hunger did get 24 varsity at-bats last year and hit .375 with 2 home runs and 11 RBI. About the only thing that's new is the middle infield where Hunger takes over at shortstop and Delgado will play second. "I don't expect a fall-off from last year," Hayslett said of his double play combo. "I expect our team to challenge for another conference title and another regional title. We bring back a lot of experience. Hitting and starting pitching should be real strong. We have set the bar pretty high for ourselves this year, and with a very good core back we are looking forward to the year. To me, it's just a matter of seeing this group play, their on the field chemistry, and how the new starters perform as we start."
Westminster Christian WarriorsCoach: John Wedell (6th season, 47-58)
Conference: Northeastern Athletic
2015 record: 9-12, 6-2
Top returning athletes: Becca Fugiel (sr., P/1B), Sarah Schmitt (jr., IF), Randazzo (so., 3B/C), Kristen Mason (so., 3B/OF/P).
Top newcomers: Taryn Boltz (so., OF/P), Sophia Hopkins (fr., IF), Rachel Schmitt (fr., IF/C), Grace Schmitt (fr., 1B/OF).
Season outlook: Westminster is loaded with top-performing returning players. Fugiel and Schmitt both were all-NAC first-team picks, while Randazzo and Mason were second-team selections. Fugiel hit .364 with 24 RBI and a .691 on-base percentage and went 2-2 in the circle. Schmitt hit .485, had a .742 on-base percentage and had 13 RBI. Randazzo hit .424 and scored 26 runs, while Mason hit .472 (.625 on-base) with 26 RBI and 28 runs scored. "We look to contend again for another conference championship and expect to compete for our second regional championship as well," said Wedell. "With six returning players from last year, including our two pitchers, we love the prospects of our best season ever. Throw in the additions of infielder Sophia Hopkins and another quality pitcher in Taryn Boltz, along with Rachel and Grace Schmitt, and we will start the season with the most experienced group of players yet. Our team speed should be better so we expect to be able to put much more pressure on defenses than ever before. Our concern is the size of our roster. We only have 10 girls starting the season." Wedell said defending conference champion Alden-Hebron will again be a top team in the NAC. "They return most of the players from last year's team," he said.
Mike Miazga contributed to this report