One pitcher — and 9 other players — helped Katie Perkins’ junior varsity softball team at Evanston somehow win a total of 17 games last spring.
That’s the kind of dedication and commitment and hard work that Perkins hopes will carry over as she takes the helm at the varsity level this spring.
Evanston, which opens the 2016 season Friday at the Rosemont Dome against St. Ignatius, has only had one winning season at the varsity level since 1999 and is coming off an 11-19 season last year. Perkins, who previously coached at Plainfield, Senn and Holy Trinity, is Evanston’s third head coach in the past 5 seasons and hopes to bring some stability to the program after coaching in the feeder program and at the JV level the past 3 years at ETHS.
Even if Perkins can turn the program around enough to become a perennial threat in the Central Suburban League South division race, it’s likely she won’t forget last year’s JV team that overcame injuries and limited numbers to forge a winning campaign.
When pitcher Zoe Kurtzer was promoted to the varsity midway through the season, the Wildkit JVs were left with just one pitcher, right-hander Grace Elwood. But that didn’t stop a determined bunch of Kits from posting an overall won-loss mark of 17-9.
Five of those players will join Perkins on the varsity this spring.
“We only had 10 healthy players at the end of the year, and three of the JV players had never played before,” Perkins recalled. “But that group that was left really bought into what we were trying to do, and they all improved by leaps and bounds. The communication — and love — between those girls was huge. They learned that people need to make — and keep — the commitments that they make.
“Hard work beats talent, and I’ve set very high expectations for the kids I coach. I’m old school that way. I think the difference this year will be in the expectations and we want to change the mental culture from what it was in the past. They know that we’re going to get to work and become better. When it’s time to work, it’s time to work.”
All-conference seniors Gina Hopf and Maddy Managlia are the only seniors on the 2016 roster but should provide a solid core for Perkins to build around, along with returning pitchers Kurtzer, junior Jaden Janzen and two underclassmen to watch, sophomore catcher Margaret Eisefelder and freshman first baseman Lucy Hart.
Success starts in the circle in fast-pitch softball, of course, and Perkins will use the early slate of games to sort out the best approach for the trio of Kurtzer, Janzen and Elwood.
Janzen and Kurtzer often both appeared in the same game last spring in an effort to throw off the rhythm of opposing hitters. Perkins and new pitching coach Shannon Roney are still determining the best approach for this year with Elwood added to the mix.
“All of them will get some time on the mound, but I’ve never been an advocate for a full rotation of starters like in baseball,” said the ETHS coach. “Physically, one person could pitch every game because the throwing (underhand) motion is more natural. We’re still in the process of deciding whether to make one a starter and someone else a closer.
“Zoe was up on the varsity as a freshman, and I thought she showed great growth in the one month I had her last year before she moved up to the varsity and leveled off. And Grace is definitely in our plans. She has 5 different pitches and she’s extremely composed out there. She’s a really focused, hard-working kid and she’s extremely coachable. I really think we’ll be alright when it comes to our pitching.”
Hopf will return to handle the hot corner and pound for pound has as much pop in her bat as anyone in the CSL. Managlia, who has played almost every position in her first three varsity seasons, will settle in at center field and provides speed at the top of the batting order.
The decision to move Hart to the varsity right away turned out to be a no-brainer during the two weeks of tryouts prior to the season. “I did coach her the past two years, but she’s not up on the varsity just because I’ve coached her,” said Perkins. “She has a bat that just couldn’t be dismissed. She’s a class act and a hard worker, and I know the potential she’s got.”
With Hart installed at first base, Wildkit fans can expect junior Kendra Klamm and junior Gwyn Hodges to share second base duties.
Another youngster to watch is sophomore shortstop Caroline Job, whose ability allowed the new coach to shift Managlia back to the outfield on a permanent basis.
“Caroline is one of the most athletic players we have. Her lateral movement is out of this world. She’s very aggressive and extremely athletic,” the coach praised.
Eisfelder and junior Megan Chambers will divide the catching duties, and whichever player isn’t behind the plate on a given day will join Managlia, Elwood, Janzen, Kurtzer, and junior Hannah Schaps as candidates to start in the outfield.
Help will also come from junior Katie Parcell, a first baseman/designated hitter, and strong-armed outfielder Lanai Mills.
“There’s a lot of versatility with this group of kids, and I really like the work ethic I’ve seen so far,” Perkins added. “I’d like to compete in the state tournament at the end of the year, and not just be one and done after beating a Chicago school like usual. And of course our wins and losses are important, because it’s more enjoyable when you’re winning. But what I’m really looking for is personal growth on and off the field. Without a doubt, that’s what will make the season a success.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.