Softball: Inspired Palatine ready for downstate test
EAST PEORIA-- Coach Nicole Pauly Capalbo was overseeing the latest spring practice in Palatine softball history, and it still hadn't sunk in.
Just one day earlier, two of her players who combined for one home run during the regular season, belted 3-run homers in the same inning to lift the Pirates to their first trip to state finals.
One of them was Kaitlyn Reed, who was in middle school last year.
The other was junior Emily Parrott, whose mother Tammy played in the state finals 33 years ago.
Reed's and Parrot's unforgettable blasts helped send the Pirates (29-5) into Friday's 5:30 p.m. semifinal of the Class 4A state finals against Plainfield North (31-5).
The 3 p.m. semifinal matches Rock Island (30-5) and York (28-12-1).
"No," Capalbo said, when asked if it had sunk in. "I don't don't think it's going to until we are on our way to Peoria."
The Pirates have arrived in East Peoria in just the fourth season for Capalbo (77-50), a former standout shortstop for Palatine. She graduated with the best career batting average (.463) in school history. She then played at Northwestern and professionally for the Chicago Bandits and Akron Racers.
"My coach here, Jeff Manz (257-155-2 in 12 seasons with six regional titles) did a good job of laying the foundation down," Capalbo said. "And then when I came in I had a great group of girls and parents and my coaching staff. It took a whole program to get this point."
That point -- a trek downstate -- was one the Pirates were specifically talking about nine months ago.
"At our preseason meeting with the girls in September, this was definitely a goal we wrote down," Capalbo said. "I don't think there was ever a doubt of being able to achieve it.
"It was just a matter of everything working together, putting in the extra hours. The girls wanted to get better in every aspect of the game and keep progressing as the season went on."
And that's exactly what happened under Capalbo's leadership, along with her assistants Kristen Proffitt and Nick Pauly.
Proffitt, the pitching coach, watched senior Sarah Grossman win 22 games in 24 decisions while sophomore Rhiann Dick was a seven-game winner from 11 decisions.
Grossman, who did not give up a run in the first three games of the postseason, drew a little extra inspiration when she attended the College World Series on Sunday morning before defeating Barrington on Monday night.
"It was awesome," said Grossman, who will pitch for the Milwaukee School of Engineering next season. "Those girls have worked so hard. To see them in person and not on TV was so neat."
Capalbo was thrilled her pitcher was able to attend a World Series game in Tulsa.
Grossman flew to Oklahoma City for a country music concert (her graduation gift) and when talking to Pauly that night, she was sold on the World Series game just two hours away in Tulsa.
"We were going to catch a 6:15 a.m. flight back home Sunday morning," Grossman said. "But we figured I could learn more from watching a college World Series game so my dad rented a car and we drove two hours for the game."
Grossman called the experience inspiring and she also said the team's inspiration is driven for a former classmate who passed way recently.
"We are playing for our friend Courtland (Cornelius, a standout athlete at Palatine and Carthage College)," she said. "I think that has added to our mental game to get it done for him. We dedicated our big hits to him and we wear bows in our hair with his name. We want to make history for Court."
Grossman goes down as one of Palatine's all-time finest pitchers in program history, registering nearly 500 career strikeouts and 281 this spring.
"I think seeing that atmosphere (World Series) and that caliber of play makes anyone up the level of their game," said Capalbo, who hit a home run in the 2006 College Softball World Series when Northwestern defeated Baylor 7-0. "But I also think Sarah is in a good place now, emotionally and physically. She is completely focused and relying on her defense. In general we are a complete team right now, which is fun."
Palatine's lineup features some of the top batting averages in the state.
Senior third baseman Maddie Craver is hitting at .629, followed by junior center fielder Grace Huff (.538), junior shortstop Emily Parrott (.508), junior first baseman Amanda Stanczuk (.474) and senior left fielder Brittany Padden (.414).
Completing the Pirates' roster are senior second baseman Grace Seiffert, freshman right fielder Reed, junior catcher Anna Selleck, sophomore Dick, sophomore Emily Brinckerhoff, sophomore Mandy Logan and sophomore Chase Friel.
Plainfield North features .400 hitters in junior shortstop Sam Mallinder (.407), senior outfielder Hailey Kuriger (.463), and junior right fielder Ryan Shaughnessy (.433).
On the mound for the Tigers has been senior pitcher and Wisconsin-Green Bay recruit Greta Thompson (22-2, 1.86 ERA, 142 strikeouts), Mallinder (7-2, 2.57 ERA, 48 strikeouts) and junior Abbey Fitzgerald (1-1, 1.55 ERA. 11 strikeouts).
Like Capalbo, Tigers coach Kelly Ash has guided the Tigers to their first state finals appearance. They were 27-5 last year.
Plainfield North defeated Sandburg 5-4 at the Hinsdale South supersectional.
"Obviously they have a good team," Capalbo said. "But I think we match up really well. I think our hard schedule with the tough Mid-Suburban League and all the teams we have played throughout the postseason helped get us ready for this. I think we're good to go."
The Pirates are going with Grossman, who lost her only games this season to Barrington before coming out on top against the Fillies in the supersectional.
"Going to see that World Series game really inspired me," Grossman added. "I'm really ready to go now and see what we can do in the state finals. And we go as one big family."
"We're just enjoying the ride," Capalbo said. "We knew together as a unit that we are really good and we just want to stay together downstate."