Softball: Huntley doesn't look at itself as defending champs
Huntley's Briana Bower is, in fact, a senior, even if the Red Raiders ace doesn't always feel that way.
"I still call myself a junior, it's a little weird," said Bower, who pitched the Raiders to the Class 4A state championship in 2019 as a sophomore for the school's first state title. "But it's my last year here, and we're just going to give it our best."
Huntley might have been the last softball team in the state to win a game in 2019, but Huntley coach Mark Petryniec does not necessarily see his team as the defending state champions after last year's lost season because of COVID-19.
Still, losing a year was a big blow for a Raiders team that was 35-7 in 2019 and had hopes of another deep postseason run.
"The hardest part is that you really feel bad for the seniors who didn't get a chance," Petryniec said. "Especially with what that team was set up to defend. But this team is its own team. People say that we're the defending champs, but we're two years removed and half of our roster hasn't played on varsity.
"They're still learning the game like everyone else. They're still learning what Huntley softball is all about."
It's been a crash course of a learning experience so far.
Since the first game of the season, the Raiders (6-5) haven't had a day off on their schedule, except for Sundays. Friday will be Huntley's first day without a game since the season started.
Huntley has played top competition, too, including Marist, Lincoln-Way Central and Barrington, while facing some of the top pitching in the state. Petryniec hopes those games will pay off down the road.
"There's not too many girls throwing 69 or 70 [mph] in Illinois, and we've seen two of them," he said. "We schedule those games so we're prepared for conference and the postseason."
Despite some tough losses early, Bower is encouraged by Huntley's progress. Huntley has not lost in FVC play and has outscored its opponents, 40-0, in four games.
Reese Hunkins, Marley Reicher, Lindsay Morgan, Jori Heard and Abigail Simandl all return from the 2019 state champions.
"I think we're doing good so far," Bower said. "Our hitting is really coming together, and it's always nice to have a lot of runs to back me up. I feel confident on the mound."
Going, going, gone:
Crystal Lake South's Alexis Pupillo hit six home runs as an everyday starting freshman in 2019. Through six games this year, the junior leads all area players with seven, including three games with two homers. Her first home run of the season was a grand slam.
Pupillo nearly added two more homers to her total Monday, hitting two towering flies to the fence in center and left field. Pupillo's power surge is no surprise to Gators first-year head coach Pat Kelly.
"She elevates the ball, she can really pound it," Kelly said of South's catcher and No. 2 hitter. "She's definitely talented enough to play at the next level, and I hope she gets those opportunities."
Pupillo's 0-for-3 day against Huntley on Monday snapped a five-game streak with three hits. She now is hitting .667 with 10 extra-base hits, 20 RBIs and 18 runs scored.
Maybe more impressive than her hitting prowess is her leadership on and off the field, Kelly said. Even as a freshman, Pupillo was vocal behind the plate.
"She's one of our captains, [senior shortstop-pitcher] Brook [Kuffel] and her," Kelly said. "She does a real nice job of holding girls accountable. She's a leader, and she's always communicating. She brings it every day. If you aren't holding yourself to her standards, she does a good job of talking to you and getting you there."
Jacobs junior pitcher Abbey Nesnidal recorded her second game of the season with 16 strikeouts Monday, leading the Golden Eagles to a 3-1 win against Burlington Central, the team's seventh consecutive win.
Nesnidal, a Bellarmine University commit, also struck out 16 batters in a win against McHenry on April 20. Jacobs may have the deepest pitching staff in the area, with Nesnidal, Delaney Garden, Sarah Lynch and Caitlin Cook all contributing this season.