Baranek: Oak Forest’s dynamic duo together again at NIU
By Tony Baranek firstname.lastname@example.org August 11, 2013 6:02PM
Emily Norton (left) and Emily Naegele. | Supplied photo
Updated: September 13, 2013 6:12AM
It was a blast from the past Wednesday when former Oak Forest softball star Emily Naegele hit a home run in her first at-bat during the school’s annual alumni game.
Her old batterymate, pitcher Emily Norton, was there, too. It would have been quite the Kodak moment if she had taken the ball, but Norton, who is resting a tricky shoulder, only batted.
The Bengals’ dynamic duo will be together again, however, starting in the fall at Northern Illinois University.
The road they traveled had some twists. But first, some history.
From 2009 to ’11, Norton and Naegele were one of the most successful pitcher/catcher combinations in the state.
During that time, Norton collected 81 victories and 815 strikeouts and was one of the Bengals’ leading hitters.
Naegele was her rock behind the plate, not only as Norton’s calming influence, but sporting a golden arm that made opponents afraid to run on her. Offensively, Naegele was a terror, averaging in the .600s, hitting 17 homers and totaling 117 RBI.
As a sophomore in 2009, Norton was the SouthtownStar Player of the Year, leading Oak Forest to the Class 3A title. In 2011, as a junior, Naegele was the SouthtownStar Player of the Year.
Together, they were as in sync as teammates possibly could be.
“I think she really understands me, not only as a pitcher but as a person,” Norton said of Naegele. “She knew when to push me, when to take a step back, what to say to me.
“That really helped because I knew I could trust her and she wasn’t going to explode on me or anything. That’s really important for a pitcher/catcher combination.”
In 2011, shortly after Norton committed to Radford, Naegele announced she would be attending the Division I school in Virginia when she graduated from Oak Forest in 2012.
Pretty cool, eh? Well, things changed.
While Naegele was finishing her senior season at Oak Forest, Norton was finishing a difficult freshman season at Radford.
“Everything is maximized in college,” Norton said. “You’re lifting a ton, playing a ton. … I wasn’t used to things, and I ended up hurting my shoulder.”
Plus, she was homesick.
“It was really far from home,” Norton said. “I thought I was going to be OK with that until I got there. Once I got to the end of the year, I thought I would rather be close to home. Softball didn’t mean as much to me when my family wasn’t there to experience it.”
Norton found a home at NIU, and lived with her sister, Carly, who was in her fifth year of studies after a four-year softball career. When word filtered back to Naegele, she was stunned.
“I was like, ‘What? Oh, my gosh.’ I didn’t know what to think,” Naegele said. “I knew I could obviously be successful if she wasn’t (at Radford), but …”
That wasn’t the only surprise. A month before leaving for Radford, the coach (Mickey Dean) who recruited Naegele left to take the coaching job at James Madison.
Naegele’s freshman year at Radford was solid with 11 home runs and 32 RBI. But nothing was as it looked when she made her commitment as a high school junior.
After discussions with her mother, Naegele made the decision to come home. Former Bengals coach Paige Stryczek suggested NIU, where both Norton and former Bengals teammate Amanda Sheppard were playing.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I didn’t want everyone to think I was following (Norton) everywhere she went,” Naegele said. “I didn’t want her to think that, either.”
Norton had no such notion.
“I don’t think that’s how it is,” Norton said. “We both had the same coach on our travel team, and I know we both really got sold on Radford. It was a great school, but we were too young to know what we wanted. It ended up being that we have the same taste in things, and it just worked out.”
Norton is coming off a sophomore season in which she put up solid numbers — 16 wins, 129 strikeouts and 13 complete games.
She and Naegele visited the field at NIU together Thursday. Norton did some light tossing.
“It was cool,” Naegele said. “She learned a couple of new pitches, and I was questioning, ‘Why are you doing this and that?’ I know her obviously really well, but we went through some of the little things she’s doing different now.”
Just like old times.
“It was like nothing’s changed, which is good,” Norton said. “It was funny watching her catch in the alumni game and running out to the pitcher. I was like, ‘Ohhhh, I’ve got to get used to this again.’ She’s really athletic and a great catcher, and I’m excited to pitch to her again.”