A decade and a half ago, the Amboy Clippers started up their softball program … and immediately suffered through back-to-back winless springs in 2001 and 2002.
In a relatively short time, Amboy has done a complete 180. The Clippers come into this spring as a three-time defending regional champion, and several familiar faces are poised to keep that streak alive.
And while graduation has hit Amboy hard the past couple of seasons, there is still plenty of talent and experience to carry on the recent tradition of success. The Clippers boast three seniors and a junior who are starting their third varsity seasons, and another junior who is on track to be a 3-year varsity starter before her career is over.
"We have a lot of girls who know what's expected of them, know what it takes to be leaders," said Kelly Whitman, who's entering her seventh season as Amboy's head coach. "They've been in a position to have success before, and hopefully they'll carry that over, and it will carry them to push even farther."
Last year's senior class was the first 4-year group at Amboy to have played for the Rage, a local ASA travel team. Whitman credits that summer experience for the number of 3- and even 4-year varsity players the Clippers have had.
It's also helped the team to adapt to whatever strengths present themselves. Last year's squad made up for the loss of star pitcher Kiara Kaleel to graduation by picking up the slack with some big bats and providing some strong run support for senior hurler Lauren Akre.
This year, Whitman and her coaching staff are relying on experience to carry the day – as well as some talent both in the field and at the plate – as the Clippers will use "pitching by committee," led by freshman Karlee Doege.
"We're going to have to play tight defense and have a good offense," junior catcher Kaitlyn Liebing said. "Most of us have been around the game our whole lives, and we know the game really well, and that's what makes an all-around strong team."
"All-around" is a phrase that comes up more than once when talking about Amboy softball. Senior second baseman Kelsie Thurman also used it to describe what the Clippers will hang their hats on this season.
"We've got strengths everywhere, all around the field," Thurman said. "We're not just a hitting team or just a defensive team. That gives us a lot of confidence that we can win no matter what's working and what's not working."
In addition to notoriety, the Clippers' success has also improved the chemistry in the dugout.
It also means there's very few question marks when it comes to who plays where in the field, who hits where in the batting order, and who can be relied on in the clutch or on the big stage.
"We're pretty comfortable together," junior shortstop Madeline Ely said. "We've stuck together, really stuck up for each other, and we know our teammates have our backs and will always pick us up if we're having an off day. It's a good feeling to know that, and we want to keep that going."
As the success has come, the vibes surrounding the program have become increasingly positive … which, in turn, feeds into the team's success. While the self-fulfilling cycle seems never-ending, the current Clippers know it's a relatively recent development.
"We know what it's taken, and we appreciate it," Liebing said. "We haven't had a really strong program historically, but since we've started winning a lot more the previous few years, softball has become a bigger deal in Amboy … and we're hoping to keep that going this year."
The best way to do that would be to win another regional title, but that's not all the Clippers have on their minds. Taking that next postseason step, and continuing the recent Amboy legacy, isn't far behind on that train of thought.
"We feel like we can win a fourth regional in a row … and maybe even go farther," Thurman said. "Since we've come to high school, we've been pretty fortunate to be on some great teams, with some great teammates, and we've won a regional title every year. Everybody expects success now, and we don't want that to stop now."
• Started program in 2000-01 school year
• Were winless through first two seasons
• Boast an 88-24 record over the past 4 seasons, a winning percentage of .786
• Accumulated a 30-12 record in Three Rivers Conference play the past 3 seasons, a .714 winning percentage
• Have won 3 straight regionals, and made one sectional championship appearance