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Baranek: Replacing Emily Naegele and Brianna LeBeau a double dilemma

BriannLeBeau  | File photo

Brianna LeBeau | File photo

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Updated: May 1, 2013 2:34PM



It’s a pretty good bet that no two Southland softball players over the past four years made those watching say “Wow!” more often than Brianna LeBeau and Emily Naegele.

LeBeau, the last of three sisters who helped define Richards softball for almost a decade, had a career 73-20 pitching record, with a 0.93 ERA. She also hit .517, with 179 RBI. In 2012, she was the SouthtownStar Player of the Year.

Naegele splashed onto the scene as a freshman in 2009 as the starting catcher for Oak Forest’s Class 3A state championship team. She went on to be the SouthtownStar Player of the Year in 2011, and hit 24 home runs and batted over .600 in her final two seasons. Behind the plate, she was virtually impossible to steal on.

Can you imagine what those two would have done as a battery?

Yeah, I know. Wow.

With LeBeau at Northwestern and Naegele at Radford, can you imagine trying to replace them?

“Oh, boy,” Richards coach Julie Folliard said.

“That is a great, great question,” Oak Forest coach Katy Dammer responded.

The short answer is, it won’t be easy.

Each was more than just a talented player, each was a presence.

When LeBeau stood 5-11 tall in that circle and stared down at the batter, she had fire in her eyes. She already was halfway to strike one before she delivered the ball.

Now, there’s no doubt that behind LeBeau’s success were some talented teammates, among them Hannah Jenkins, Kristina Apato, Danielle Kappel, Sam Kusta and Nicole Ellement. But LeBeau was the ringleader. The force.

“She was really the ultimate competitor coming from the ultimate athlete,” Folliard said. “Brianna was such an entity. She could field her position better than anybody I’ve seen. She would pick up bunts and gun people out at second base. You just don’t see that a lot.

“And then, to be one of the biggest offensive threats in the state … I don’t know if there has been a player like that in this area very often. That’s why she’s Brianna LeBeau and she got a scholarship to Northwestern.”

That being said, Richards, more than at any other position, has a rich pitching tradition. Amanda Flaws, Carole Gorecki, Lindsey LaChiana and Lisa Paplauski are a few who come to mind who had at least three highly successful seasons in the circle as Bulldogs.

“I’ve been fortunate that, even though we don’t usually have a million great pitchers at a time we’ve always had one good one who had a massively big heart and played well,” Folliard said.

So who will step up in 2013? Junior Sarah Tobin won all three games she pitched last season, but she also is a starting outfielder. Senior Stephanie Waller was a sophomore conference champion pitcher for the Bulldogs, and is back after missing her junior season because of a broken foot. Junior Victoria Nemec was the ace of the sophomore staff in 2012.

Three pitchers — one goal.

“We’re going to see how we can use them to help us win,” Folliard said. “I’m just kind of mixing them up right now. Having a rotation — that would be different. But I’ve already been working through that scenario.”

At Oak Forest, Dammer is starting her second season as coach without a four-year field general.

When Naegele was in the batter’s box, the opposing pitcher had few options where to throw the ball and be reasonably sure it wouldn’t wind up over the fence or whistling into a gap. On more than a few occasions she turned intentional walks into extra-base hits by reaching out her long arms and whacking the ball to the opposite field.

Behind the plate? Well, an opposing runner just didn’t dare. During Naegele’s Player of the Year season in 2011, just seven tried to steal. She threw out five of them, and picked off four others at first base.

“She was definitely a one-of-a-kind person who demonstrated leadership on and off the field,” Dammer said. “She had just a natural ability for the game and went straight out there and put it into action.”

All of the Bengals players I’ve talked with over the past four years said that as much talent as she had, Naegele was an even better teammate. Which brings us to senior Alyssa Johnson.

The projected starting catcher in 2013, Johnson logged more time at first base last season than behind the plate. According to Dammer, Johnson won’t be going in unprepared.

“Day in and day out they worked very closely together,” Dammer said of Naegele and Johnson. “Emily really mentored our younger catchers. We have a senior this year who had an opportunity to learn from a player with so much talent and natural ability.

“(Johnson) has been working really hard. She knew we’ve been talking ever since last season about the big role she has to fill. She’ll be our vision and driving force behind the plate.”

Let the torches be passed.



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