Baranek: No runaways in race for softball glory
Tony Baranek firstname.lastname@example.org | (708) 633-5947 April 26, 2012 8:46PM
Oak Forest's Emily Naegele. | File photo
A FRESH START
Sandburg’s Lexi Bryant made an impressive debut at the University of Kansas, smashing a home run in her first college at-bat, against Tennessee-Martin. Through 45 games, she’s hitting .220, with two home runs and 14 RBI. Behind the plate, she has thrown out 10 would-be base-stealers.
Updated: May 28, 2012 9:05AM
OK, so we’re heading to the three-quarter pole in the 2012 softball season. What can I tell you with complete confidence about what lies ahead?
Well ... we’re going to have a banquet at Jenny’s Steakhouse.
What I’m going to be saying at that banquet about the teams that excelled and the Player of the Year — better get back to me on that in about five weeks.
I have no idea.
Everybody is beating everybody, it seems. To pick an area favorite to get downstate, at this point, purely would be guessing.
Among the standout individuals are pitcher Ashley Rogers, of Mother McAuley, who won her first 14 decisions before losing to Downers Grove North. She beat No. 1 Richards 5-1 on Tuesday. Savannah Soppet leads the area in ERA (0.68) and RBI (43) for Class 2A Beecher.
Alyssa Gunther, of Tinley Park, was hitting nearly .700 at one point this season. She since has cooled to the upper .500s. Sandburg’s Ellie Forkin is among the top surprises among the junior class. She was hitting .682 as of the most recent stats provided by Eagles coach Jim Fabianski.
Last year’s runner-up for Player of the Year, pitcher Brianna LeBeau, of Richards, is having another stellar season, albeit with a couple of bumps in the road. She’s hitting in the upper .500s, according to Bulldogs coach Julie Folliard. LeBeau was unbeaten in the circle until an unlucky Friday, April 13, when she was betrayed by a couple of errors in a 3-1 loss to Marengo.
The next day, against Lockport, it was the defense, especially left fielder Nicole Ellement, that saved her in a come-from-behind 4-2 victory. It’ll be interesting to see how she and Richards rebound after McAuley came from behind with a sixth-inning outburst to beat them Tuesday.
And then there’s Oak Forest senior and 2011 Player of the Year Emily Naegele.
The eye-popping numbers she put up last season (.634, 12 HRs, 56 RBI, 47 runs, 24 stolen bases) seemed improbable for her to match in 2012. Opposing pitchers seemingly are making sure she doesn’t.
In a game last week against Tinley Park, Naegele was walked in her first three plate appearances. In her fourth, with the game-winning run in scoring position, she was in the process of being walked again when she reached well out of the strike zone and ripped a liner that was snagged by the first baseman.
Tuesday against Lemont, Naegele doubled in her first at-bat, then never saw another decent pitch, according to Bengals coach Katy Dammer. Naegele took walks her second and third time up, then swung at a pitch well out of the strike zone and stroked a single to go 2-for-2 on the day.
In early April, Naegele had seven home runs and appeared primed to make a run at the state record for round-trippers (18). It’s not looking like it anymore. LeBeau challenged Naegele (she was 2-for-3) when they met March 28, but lately nobody seems to want to pitch to her, especially in the conference games. She’s walked 12 times.
“It’s been really difficult, but I guess that’s what you get,” said Naegele, who is hitting a remarkable .571 with 25 RBI and 14 stolen bases. “I should be walking more times, but I’m getting lucky, kind of, because I’ve been hitting balls that are off the plate.”
I’ll never forget last year talking before the season with Sandburg senior and defending Player of the Year Lexi Bryant, who’d hit 15 home runs as a junior and said her goal for 2011 was to hit at least 19.
Only problem was, too many area pitchers had good memories. Bryant didn’t see a whole lot of fastballs down the middle. She finished with six.
It’s not easy being a power hitter.
“It’s come up (the HR record), but I’m not worried about it too much,” Naegele said. “If you try for home runs (after a great junior season) you’ll get in that senior slump and it’s not going to work out. You kind of just have to try to help out your team.
“Home runs just come naturally. If you try for them, you’ll just pop up.”
Besides, Naegele’s softball fantasies lie in a different direction.
“Sometimes I wish I could be a slapper,” she said. “I’ve got some decent speed, you know.”
Think that’d freak out a few third basemen?