Two All-NIC-10 pitchers return in softball this fall.
And they are from the two teams that tied for the conference title.
So surprise, surprise … those are the two teams listed by virtually all the conference coaches as the teams to beat in 2019.
Ashton Melaas of Hononegah and Taylor Murray of Freeport return to the mounds of their respective teams, which both finished 16-2 last spring to share the NIC-10 crown. And with pitching the most important position in softball, and softball pitchers able to go multiple games in a week, it’s usually the ones with the aces who will dominate.
With that in mind, here is a look at the NIC-10 race in predicted order of finish:
Coach: Chad Hersey (5th season)
Last year: 16-2 in NIC-10, 24-4 overall
Returning starters: Taylor Murray (Sr., P/1B), Josie Bunker (Sr., 2B), Abby Smith (Sr., SS), Tahlor Holland (Sr., 3B), Riley Kleckler (Sr., OF), Reese Coon (So., 1B/C).
Other top players: Paige Waller (Sr., C/IF), Aaliyah Anderson (Jr., P), Jordan Rowe (Jr., Utility), Addison Gitz (Fr., IF), Seraphine Swalve (So., IF), Maggie Plum (So., P/IF), Kyla Plowman (Fr., OF), Neelah Vandeberg (Fr., P/IF), Jordan Olson (Fr., C/IF).
Outlook: Murray pitched to a 1.65 ERA with 17 wins – the second most in the conference – on her way to First Team All-NIC-10 and Illinois Coaches Association 2nd Team All-State honors. But she is more than just a great arm. Murray also led the NIC-10 in batting with a .548 average to go with 41 RBI, 42 runs and five home runs. She is joined by Bunker, a Special Mention all-NIC-10 performer who hit .371 with 39 RBI and six home runs. Coach Hersey said team speed and pitching will be the team’s top strengths. “We lost several big bats from the middle of our lineup,” he said. “We probably won’t be able to replace that production with just one or two new players. Instead, we’re hoping we can improve across the board to help supplement the offense.”
Coach: Dan Bohn (1st season)
Last year: 16-2 in NIC-10, 22-12 overall
Returning starters: Carrie Anderson (Sr., SS), Ashton Melaas (Sr., P/OF), Cayla Cavanagh (Sr., C), Maiah Frazier (Sr., OF), Hannah Haefner (Sr., OF), Emilie Hooker (Sr., 3B), Kendall Johnson (So., 2B/OF), Ava Martin (So, 2B/OF), Catie Thorne (Sr., P), Brooke Wintlend (Jr., 1B).
Other key players: Gwen Kinder (Sr., OF), Renee Laird (Jr., SS/OF), Olivia Swanson (Jr., 1B), Emma Schroeder (Fr., P)
Outlook: A strong senior class with tons of varsity starting experience puts the Indians right in the championship mix again. Melaas leads the way on the mound after collecting 12 wins with a 3.10 ERA and 144 strikeouts, the second-most in the conference. And she, like Freeport’s Murray, also provides punch at the plate after belting nine home runs last year. And Hononegah’s other big bat belongs to Anderson, another First Team All-NIC-10 performer after bating .426 with five home runs and 40 RBI. “We have a lot of talent in our program,” said first-year coach Dan Bohn. “Carrie should once again lead the way offensively and Ashton should be one of the top pitchers in the conference.”
Coach: Kurt Head (3rd season)
Last year: 15-3 in NIC-10, 26-7 overall
Returning starters: Hailey Howard (SR P/2B) , Olivia Penney (SR C/1B), Addy Wilder (JR OF/C), Mackenzi Schultz (JR, OF), Cheyenne Nietz (SO, P/3B).
Other key players: Trinity Almond (SR, SS), Lizzy Thomas (JR, OF), Kennedy Robison (JR, P/1B), Hannah Egizio (JR, 3B/OF), Haleigh Zanoni (JR, 1B), Haley Bibby (SO, SS/3B), Bailey Wilder (SO, C/2B), Marie Swanson (FR, 3B/OF).
Outlook: Even though Freeport and Hononegah were listed at the top of most coaches’ lists, don’t count out the Huskies, who return a pair of former All-NIC-10 players in Howard and Penney. Howard was Special Mention in 2017, while Penney was Special Mention last year after hitting .437 with seven home runs and 33 RBI. But Harlem has to make up for losing five four-year starters led by last year’s MVP Bianca Barrone. “We’re a young team as far as varsity experience is concerned,” Coach Head said. “A lot will depend on the young pitching and catching and the ability to find ways to score runs.”
Coach: Mike Intravaia (4th year)
Last year: 8-10 in NIC-10, 14-18 overall
Returning starters: Paige Carter (Sr., SS), Hannah Nelson (Jr., P/OF), Haley Reichensperger (Sr., C/3B), Ashley George (So., CF/P), Emily Heitkamp (Sr., (P/OF), Lauren Burke (Sr., (2B/SS), Melanie Garbacz (Sr., OF/1B), Nyah Barnhart (Sr., 1B/C).
Other key players: Taylor Zene (Fr., C/3B), Genevieve Ryan (Fr., OF/1B)
Outlook: Boylan has a deep bed of experience with eight returning starters, six of which are in their third or fourth year as a varsity starter. They are led by First Team All-NIC-10 shortstop Carter, who hit .448 last season. She, along with Reichensperger (.529 average, 17 RBI) and Heitkamp (.417), are in their fourth season as varsity starters. Heitkamp (3.13 ERA) and Nelson (2.60) lead the way on the mound. “We have a very good pitching staff, along with big lineup of power hitters,” Coach Intravaia said. “I’m very excited about this lineup from top to bottom.”
NORTH BLUE THUNDER
Coach: Brian Hilden (5th year)
Last year: 11-7 in NIC-10, 13-5 overall
Returning starters: Breanna Kirane (Sr., SS), Bella Tauscher (Sr., CF), Mackenzie Orozco (Sr., LF), Aliyah Gaytan (Sr., 2B), Casey Neiber (Jr., P), Kaci Tomman (Jr., P), Lily Bakulski (Jr., 1B).
Other key players: Jocelyn Callahan (Jr., OF), Emily Nipper (Jr., OF), Kaie Konen (So., OF).
Outlook: Coach Hilden said his goal is top three in the NIC-10. To get there, he’ll need another big season from Orozco, who hit .431 last year; Kirane, who batted at a .376 clip. with 19 RBI; and Bakulski, who hit .342. Neiber, who was among the league leaders in strikeouts while collecting seven wins, will be key on the mound. “Our experience from last year will pay dividends for us going forward,” Hilden said.
Coach: Jessica Basford (4th season)
Last year: 4-14 in NIC-10, 6-18 overall
Returning starters: Jordan Rindels (Sr, SS ), Grace Woollacott (Sr, 3B), Alaini Owen (Sr, OF), Kelsey Powell (Sr, P/IF), Kora Dettman (Jr, P/IF/OF), Sestina Stairs (Jr, P/IF/OF), Mickey Maynard (Jr, C/IF/OF), Aaliya Mora (Jr, IF/OF), Danielle Barker, (So, P/IF/OF), Madison McNamee (So, OF).
Other key players: Maddie Conklin (Fr., OF/P), Maya Viel (Fr., IF/OF/P).
Outlook: The Knights should continue to climb after bringing back 10 starters, including four – Rindels, Woollcott, Owen and Powell – who are in their fourth seasons as starters. Rindels was a First Team All-NIC-10 shortstop last year after hitting .400, while Owen and Dettman will head the pitching staff.
Coach: Jackie Hennelly (5th season)
Last year: 9-9 ion NIC-10, 16-13 overall
Returning starters: Grace Berlage (Sr., P), Halee Bergstrom (Sr., SS), Karrington Albert (Sr., OF), Melanie Habben (Sr., OF), Brooklyn Guntermann (Sr., 1B)
Other key players: Addi Cox (So., IF/P), Kayleeann White (Sr., 3B), Gabby Rodriguez (Sr., 2B), Heather Neal (Sr., OF), Maggie Miller (Jr., 1B).
Outlook: Bergstrom (.400, 3 HR) and Berlage (.382, 26 RBI, 3 HR) will be counted on to lead the offense for the E-Rabs, who are light on experience, according to Coach Hennelly. “Our team is pretty raw compared to last year,” she said. “But what our current team lacks in experience, they make up for with heart and work ethic.” Berlage will also lead East on the mound coming off an eight-win season.
Coach: Danielle Johnson (13th season)
Last year: 9-9 in NIC-10, 16-13 overall
Returning starters: Mallory Gibbons (Sr, IF); Britney Wingren (Sr, P); Ashley Birkness (Sr, OF); Kyla White (So, C/OF); Paige Kitsemble (So, OF)
Other key players: McKenna Morris (Fr, P/C/IF); Kennedy Coryell (Fr, C/OF/IF); Sophia Hulsey (Fr, C/IF/OF); Jade Smith (Fr, IF/OF/IF)
Outlook: Gibbons comes in with four years of varsity starting experience. She and Wingren (.427 average) will lead a relatively inexperienced squad, especially on the mound. “We graduated five seniors and have a young team with five freshmen filling the varsity roster,” Coach Johnson said. “We have a number of athletes who are versatile and will play multiple positions this season.”
Coach: Michael Lawver (2nd season)
Last year: 2-13 in the NIC-10, 3-20 overall
Returning starters: Haliee Dinger (Jr., 3B), Alexis Sullivan (Jr. P), Brezie Sylvie (Sr., CF), Beliza Nava (Sr., 1B/P)
Other key players: Maggie Thomas (Fr., C).
Coach: Rick Haile (1st season)
Last year: 0-18 in NIC-10, 0-21 overall
Returning starters: Jess Flynn (Sr., C), Liz Tardio (Sr., IF/P), Kelley Tucker (Sr., OF), Selena McLain (So., IF/OF)
Other key players: Alexis Goodall (So.), Aliza Negrete (Jr.), Camron Blank (So.), Dace Brady (Fr.) Haley Barnes (Jr.), Jasmine Rodriguez (Sr.), Mariana Pulido (Sr.), Sydney Thomas (Fr.)
— Randy Ruef, Sportsfan 1330 AM