How does Evanston’s softball team plan to build on the best season in program history?
One day at a time, of course.
With 8 seniors --- and 4 underclassmen who are also returning starters --- back from a team that set a single season school record for victories with 18, and earned a share of the first conference championship since 1975, the Wildkits are poised to build on that success with a simple approach according to the philosophy of second-year head coach Katie Perkins.
“Obviously these kids had a good year last year, but our success will be based on what we do every day, in practice and in games,” said Perkins after the Kits opened the 2017 campaign with wins over Northside College Prep and Wheeling and a 7-3 loss to Loyola Academy on Tuesday. “We haven’t really set any goals as a team for the end of the season. Of course we’d love to win the conference again, win a regional (for the first time in school history) and go Downstate. But our mentality has to be to do the absolute best that we can every day. Do that, put in the work and you’ll be successful.
“We have a lot of kids who have played together for a long time and the camaraderie is great. And we’re 15 deep on the varsity this year, with depth at every single position. The pieces are there --- I just have to fit them together now.”
If this isn’t the deepest team in ETHS history --- that may be determined over the long haul of the season --- it’s certainly the deepest pitching staff. Junior Grace Elwood earned all-Central Suburban League South division honors last year, seniors Jaden Janzen and Zoe Kurtzer are proven varsity hurlers, and freshman Molly Chambers could turn out to be the best of the bunch by the time she graduates.
To Perkins’ way of thinking, there’s no such thing as too much pitching, even though fast-pitch softball teams don’t usually depend on more than two hurlers at the varsity level. And the decision to promote the hard-throwing Chambers to the varsity even though there are three more experienced right-handers back for another campaign wasn’t a difficult one.
Chambers, the younger sister of senior outfield standout Megan Chambers, got off to an impressive start this spring even though she surrendered 11 hits in the loss to Loyola on Tuesday. Only 3 of the runs she allowed were earned.
“Any coach would be ecstatic to have 4 pitchers like that on their roster,” Perkins pointed out. “In past years pitching has been pretty sparse in our program, but even with Molly up on the varsity now we have legitimate pitchers on the freshmen and JV teams.
“You have to look at it as if a freshman like Molly will be a contributor for the varsity on a daily basis, because otherwise you’re wasting their time if they’re not playing. She’s a little faster than Jaden and she’s going to be a huge asset for us. Her future is big.
“All of the pitchers have different styles, and that’s great for us. They all have at least 5 different pitches and they’ll all be options on game days. We absolutely won’t have a rotation, we’ll just go with how they feel and how good the opposition is to make a decision. We’ll do what we feel is best and there will be games where we use more than one pitcher.”
The Wildkits must fill holes at third base and center field after graduation claimed all-conference selections Gina Hopf and Maddie Managlia. Janzen will handle the hot corner when she’s not on the mound, and senior Lanai Mills has claimed the outfield job after serving as a backup a year ago.
Meg Eisfelder, a junior, is back to set the table as the leadoff hitter after belting a school record 54 hits for a .511 batting average and all-conference honors as a sophomore. She’ll divide her time between catching and the outfield. “She had a fantastic season for us last year, and she’s a strong, strong player on both offense and defense,” Perkins said. “We’ll see her in the outfield sometimes because every player should have 2 positions they can play.”
Megan Chambers, Janzen and sophomore first baseman Lucy Hart will provide muscle in the middle of the batting order for a team that hit .368 overall last spring. Senior Katie Parcell is experienced in the designated player slot, junior Caroline Job returns at shortstop, and second base has become a 3-way battle for playing time among senior Kendra Klamm, senior Gwyn Hodges and junior Ginger Haller.
Help will also come from senior Hannah Schaps and junior Hallie Cleland.
On Tuesday, ETHS pounced on Loyola hurler Alexis Rocha for two runs in the first inning on run-scoring singles by Megan Chambers and Parcell. But the visitors only mustered three hits after that, with the other run crossing on a safety squeeze bunt by pinch-hitter Schaps. Rocha retired 8 of the last 9 Wildkits she faced.
Freshman Chambers did notch 7 strikeouts while watching her mound record slip to 1-1 on the season.
“If we want to play teams deep in the postseason, we can’t give them as many chances as we gave Loyola today,” said Perkins. “You have to make plays and for whatever reason, we didn’t make them today. And our bats went flat after the third inning or so. We just weren’t able to get the job done.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.