By Steve Robinson | June 3, 2018 - 10:22 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

Normal Wildcats head Girls’ Soccer coach Val Walker tried not to let his players get ahead of themselves as this season began. Most coaches won’t allow players to think too far ahead beyond the game in front of them. But in recent years, it sounds like the Wildcats got ahead of themselves to the point that, when this season started, Walker instituted the “one game at a time” approach. That approach got the Wildcats all the way to the final four of State Finals, starting with a sendoff from the school on May 31 before heading to the campus of North Central College in Naperville to compete in the Illinois High School Association Class 2A State Soccer Tournament.

The approach Wes employed this season resulted in the Wildcats finishing the year with a 20-7-3 mark after losing the semifinal to Arlington Heights St. Viator, 1-0, and then needing to summon the strength to try to break a tie in the consolation match, winding up earning fourth place after a 1-0 overtime loss to Lemont High School .

But before the Wildcats left for Naperville via charter bus, the team bonded over a meal, encouraging each other and hearing a pre-departure pep talk from their coach. His talk came complete with props, but not any props, but the two trophies West had won at State Soccer in years past – a 3rd place trophy from 2008, and a 2nd place trophy from their 2014 appearance.

From there, Walker encouraged, there was only one direction to go as a result of the team’s previous performances – 1st place.

“I can’t wait,” said Julia Marsaglia, one of the seniors who is a team captain, when the team went around the room to express the feeling they were having as the big event drew near.

As the team boarded the charter bus afterward, between 60-75 well-wishers waved and cheered in the school’s front parking lot along Parkside Rd.

Once they were in Naperville , I kept tabs on the team’s progress. Their end result wasn’t what they had hoped for, but they were able to add to the school’s trophy case after a long season.

Sunday Celebration: Fourth place is never the goal when a sports team’s season begins. But sometimes, that’s where it winds up through one circumstance or another. Despite that finish, there was cause for celebration, and celebrate is exactly what the Wildcats did at a rally in the school cafeteria on Sunday. The players and many of their parents were in attendance for the post-season event.

Walker opened the celebration by saying he couldn’t do what he does “without a strong family foundation,” as a means of thanking his wife, Mary, and their kids. He also thanked his assistant Brady Piepenbrink, Lewis, and West Principal David Johnson for their support.

Walker also paid tribute to Livi Sonetz, a West Softball player who was killed in a car accident on March 8, the first day of practice for Soccer this season. There was supposed to be a first practice for his team that day, but instead, he and the team joined a group of teachers and students to grieve her loss that day.

After that, while the team was still grieving, Walker said, the Wildcats faced Normal Community High School and lost. But Walker explained, based on what he had seen in his players that day, “I knew we were going to get better. We just needed to play these one game at a time.”

He said the girls “started to believe in themselves” following a victory over Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin. Getting a high seed in the opening round, he said, helped his team avoid facing one of a pair of powerful squads, University High and Mahomet-Seymour as they approached the opening round of the playoffs.

Senior midfielder Melanie Bautista was voted “Most Improved Player” by her teammates, Walker announced to the gathering. Walker also recognized the team captains – seniors Olivia Peters, Samantha Whelan, Marsaglia, junior Bekah Nielsen, and Bautista – for their efforts this season. The work and determination of the team made them “yearn to get better,” Walker said. “Thank you, ladies, for all you’ve done this season.”

Unit 5 Board Member Meta Mickens-Baker was present and passed along the congratulations of the Board to the team during the session.

Peters told the gathering she has been playing Soccer since she was five said getting to State “was a great way to retire” from the sport, and thanked her parents for their support. Marsaglia added, “This team was the best team for me, not just for Soccer, but for anything in my entire life.”

As they get older, other things will come along involving family, jobs, other activities waiting for them in the future. But for that moment Sunday, this is what mattered to those kids, and years from now, they can look back and know they added to Normal West sports history.

By Steve Robinson | June 2, 2018 - 10:20 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

BLOOMINGTON – O’Fallon High School head baseball coach Jason Portz spent the days leading up to the Illinois High School Association Class 4A Sectional championship at Jack Horenberger Field on the Illinois Wesleyan University campus telling his players a small number of runs scored would not be enough to beat Normal Community West, coached by his friend, Chris Hawkins.

He was right. Although they scored two runs in the bottom of the third inning to jump to a 2-0 lead, having an explosive 8-run fifth inning gave some distance between them and Normal West en route to a 9-0 blanking of the Wildcats to take the Sectional title.

After two scoreless innings, O’Fallon senior catcher Jeremy Reno reached first base on an error by Wildcats junior shortstop Jeremy Collinson to begin the bottom of the third inning. That was followed by leadoff batter and junior shortstop Josh Gibson being hit by a pitch from Wildcats senior starter McCade Brown. With two on, senior pitcher Brayden Arnold hit a double all the way to the center field wall, scoring Reno and Gibson, giving the Panthers a 2-0 edge.

There would be two more scoreless innings for both sides afterward, and Normal West (24-15) would go down in order in the top of the fifth. From there, O’Fallon (35-3-1) would add to their lead. Two walked batters and a single by Arnold loaded the bases for senior third baseman Hayden Juenger who was walked by Brown, increasing O’Fallon’s lead, 3-0. The Panthers would score five more times that inning while keeping the Wildcats at bay to achieve victory.

“With the arm they had out there,” Portz said in reference to Brown who will attend and play at Indiana next season, “If his command had been different and our kids don’t battle, and we continue to chase above our hands, we’d be in trouble.”

Portz said he told his players it would take more than two runs to beat a Normal West squad he knew would continue to fight through to the last out.

“We knew we were going to have to be about perfect to have a shot at beating them, and we weren’t,” Hawkins said afterward. “They were really good as advertised, number one in Illinois. We gave a lot of free bases and you just can’t do that with them.”

Arnold pitched seven innings striking out eight batters for the win. Brown pitched four plus innings striking four batters in the loss.

By Steve Robinson | May 31, 2018 - 10:28 pm
Posted in Category: Normal West HS, The Normalite

NORMAL – Two heavy rain downpours May 30 may have forced a change of location for the Illinois High School Association Class 4A baseball Sectional between Normal Community West and Bradley Bourbonnais, but the change didn’t seem to faze the Wildcats, who won the contest, blanking the Boilermakers in five innings, 12-0. As a result of the victory, the Wildcats would face O’Fallon on June 2 at for Jack Horenberger Field on Illinois Wesleyan University’s campus. That game’s first pitch is slated for 11a.m.

With the field moved and the game time pushed back from 6p.m. to 7:15p.m., West winning pitcher McCade Brown sat down the Boilermakers’ firs three batters to open the top of the first inning. That was followed by Wildcats leadoff man Austin Collinson being walked and being followed by a Brandon Roth single to right field. Ben Smith followed with a single which scored both runners, giving West a quick 2-0 lead.

West (24-14) would add four more runs in their half of the second inning when Roth smacked triple scoring Sean Shook, Jeremy Fischer, and Collinson, all three who had been walked by losing pitcher Alec Weedon. Roth would also cross the plate on a fielding error, which in completing the play, delighted the crowd of roughly 500 fans, mostly West supporters. That gave West a 6-0 lead. West senior Jake Marti and sophomore Will Kafer singled and doubled, respectfully, and were driven home by a single by catcher Cody Hardt for two more runs in the innings for an 8-0 advantage.

Fischer doubling and Smith hitting a single brought in two more runs in the home half of the third inning, upping West’s lead, 10-0. The Wildcats’ last two runs came in the fourth inning, the result of a Hardt double which scored Kafer who singled, and Hardt scoring on a Collinson single.

Brown threw 54 pitches in his three innings of work, six short of what would keep him from being able to pitch in the Sectional Championship on Saturday per IHSA rules. “He knew he could throw less pitches if he could use our defense a little bit,” explained West head coach Chris Hawkins of his pitcher who increased his record on the season to 8-1.

Bradley Bourbonnais’ loss went to Weedon, and the Boilermakers season ends with an 18-14 mark. Boilermakers head coach Alec Robinson said the two-run first inning by Normal West ”was no big deal, but the big deal was the six runs in the second inning. Give them credit, Brown did a good job mixing it up. We couldn’t really pull anything together to get runs across.”

The Corn Crib Was A Last Option To Host Contest: The contest, originally slated for Horenberger Field, was moved because the field there was too waterlogged for the scheduled 6p.m. start. Quick thinking on the part of Normal West Athletic Director Stan Lewis prompted him to call Normal CornBelters President and General Manager Steve Malliet to see if it would be possible to play there. The CornBelters were out of town in the midst of a 9-day road trip, allowing the game to go forward with a 7:15p.m.start, thus preventing IHSA from declaring the game postponed.

Hawkins said maneuvering to find a location to play didn’t really rattle his players, who hadn’t played since May 26. He added, “Our guys were just hungry to play today. If someone had offered them a blacktop to play on, they’d have played on it if that had to happen.”

Malliet said The Corn Crib was “the last option” in terms of a location for the contest because even Duffy Bass Field on Illinois State University’s campus would not have been an option because of its grass outfield. “Thankfully, we had turf and we were able to help out,” he said.

By Steve Robinson | May 1, 2018 - 10:07 pm
Posted in Category: NCHS, Normal West HS, The Normalite

The visiting Iron scored in the first inning as pitcher Mackenzie Leonard was dodged by West pitching all day, being walked five appearances at the plate. With two out, she scored on a Jenna White single, giving NCHS a 1-0 lead and keeping two on base only to see the Iron’s own pitcher, Jessi Grove, become the third out in the opening inning.

The Lady Iron put two more on the board in the top of the third inning when shortstop Ashley Klinzing singled followed by center fielder Reese Johnson singling and West pitcher Bailey Turner getting walked for what was the second time in the contest at that time. Ella Fletcher’s base clearing single gave NCHS a 3-0 lead. A single by Fletcher in the fourth inning cleared the bases of Klinzing and Johnson a second time in the fourth inning, giving the Lady Iron a 5-0 lead midway through that inning.

A single by Bailey Turner advanced Jess Jacobs and allowed Mikayla Fairfield to cross the plate for West for the first time in the bottom of the fourth inning, cutting the Iron’s lead, 5-1. a double by Josi Grove aided by a single and advancing to second by Jacobs helped with that score. A single by Addi Boundy scored Grove who doubled earlier in the fifth inning, putting NCHS up, 6-1

But Jacobs gave Wildcats faithful in attendance a glimmer of hope blasting a bottom of the sixth inning first pitch over the center field wall for a home run, reducing the Iron’s lead, 6-2. But while that was seen as a momentum booster, the Wildcats couldn’t boost run production beyond that. With one out in the top of the seventh, leadoff hitter Klinzing singled and then scored to avoid a single with two out resulting in the final score.

The win lifted NCHS to 14-2 overall including a perfect 5-0 in the Big 12 Conference. Normal West slid to 11-10 overall which includes a 4-1 conference mark. Leonard earned the victory while West’s Savanna Mattson had the loss.

Leonard was intentionally walked at all five of her at-bats and NCHS head coach said he understood that logic on the part of his cross-town opponent. “We’ve been seeing that quite a bit and we’re just used to it now,” NCHS head coach Jeff Cole said. “Mackenzie did a lot of damage to these guys her freshman year. As a result, Cole added, he didn’t fault West head coach April Schermann for employing that strategy.

“We haven’t been able to piece together seven consecutive innings of great softball,” said Schermann. “We had some innings where we fought back and had some momentum going. But we need to do that consistently for all seven innings. Every loss is a learning opportunity and we have a lot of notes from this game that we’re going to work on.”

By Steve Robinson | April 10, 2018 - 10:59 pm
Posted in Category: NCHS, Normal West HS, The Normalite

NORMAL – Eight days not playing baseball due to poor weather conditions after having been on the road down south was bound to get to a team sooner or later. For Normal Community High School as they took on Unit 5 arch rival Normal Community West, sooner was the first inning on Tuesday on their home field. That four-run first inning was all it took for the visiting Wildcats to beat the Ironmen, 4-2, in what were still blustery conditions.

The contest was the Big 12 Conference season opener for both teams, and Normal West (5-6 overall and 1-0 Big 12) wasted no time getting runs on the scoreboard thanks to a lead-off walk by designated hitter Brennan Diedrich. That was followed by a base hit by first baseman Jake Marti, who achieved a first base hit for his team in the game against NCHS starter J.D. Thiele. A base hit by catcher Ben Smith drove home Diedrich and Marti to give the Wildcats a 2-0 lead.

With the next batter, right fielder Cody Hardt at the plate, Smith stole second. Hardt singled and the pair advanced to second and third on a balk called against Ironmen starting pitcher Thiele. A single by left fielder C. J. Lewis brought Hardt and Smith across the plate with one out for a 4-0 lead.

Walks were the mode used to get two runs across the plate for NCHS (5-2) in the home half of the fourth inning. With one out, right fielder Sam Kahwaji singled. He was followed by first baseman Jacob Russo who walked. With two on, the next batter, first baseman Logan Fricker, also walked. With bases loaded, Normal West pitcher McCade Brown walked in Kahwaji and Russo before Normal West pitcher Tyler Thierry grounded out and was followed by a walk of left fielder Brody Fletcher. That resulted in what turned out to be the final score. The inning ended with designated hitter Nick Gilhaus striking out on a Brown pitch. Gilhaus was one of 11 batters who struck out with Brown on the mound. The victory gave Brown a 3-1 record.

Of Brown’s fourth inning struggles, Normal West head coach Chris Hawkins said, “He had one tough inning and getting his control back.” Prior to this contest, the Wildcats’ last game was a road game at Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin on April 2, Hawkins explained.

NCHS head coach Ryan Short encouraged his players to “have a short memory about that first inning.” Once they did that, he said, his players did well. “We did have some base runners in the first two or three innings, but we just couldn’t get anybody around.”

Short said his team practices under these conditions as much as possible to adjust to the cold because during the season, it’s likely to be like that until mid-May.