Kelly Whitman remembers when it felt good to see the Amboy softball team avoid a run-rule loss before the fifth inning. Going seven was almost a novel idea.
Going to the state tournament as anything other than a spectator wasn't even on the radar of anyone near Amboy High School.
Whitman started teaching at Amboy during the 2000-01 school year, and that spring the Clippers started a softball program. Whitman was an assistant to Tina Eller those first few years.
"We were dealing with a whole new program," Whitman said. "We had girls that had never played, much less having anyone that could pitch.
"Heck, back then you could get run-ruled after three innings. It was really hard to get the girls to stay motivated when that happens, much less get them to practice to get better."
Whitman, who played at Dixon, hadn't been a part of a winning program in high school either, but this depth of losing was a brand new experience.
After a few years as an understudy, Whitman became the head coach. Whitman keeps a poster board with each season's record.
Amboy went 0-48 the first two seasons. In its first five seasons, Amboy went 2-58 in Three Rivers play. It wasn't until 2006, when the team went 8-19-1, that things started to look a little better.
It was 4 years later before Amboy would have a winning record, and another year before they ended above .500 in the Three Rivers. The Clippers' first regional title win came in 2011.
The secret to Amboy's turnaround started away from the high school program, as the Amboy Rage traveling softball program started in the mid-2000s.
The bulk of the roster leading the Clippers to the 1A state tournament were young members on the 12U team.
"There's no doubt that is a big reason we've got better in high school," senior outfielder Micaela McCoy said. "We got so much better at the fundamentals, and just got so much more experience playing softball."
The last three seasons, the Clippers had taken a big step forward – winning regionals each year.
Amboy, however, kept running into roadblocks in the sectional final games. Freshman Karlee Doege had to watch as older sister, Cassie, kept coming close to making school history.
"It was heartbreaking to watch at times," Doege said. "They would get so close, and then fall in that sectional final. They put in a lot of work, and they had much better records. So, they did a lot to get the team to where it is now."
The other challenge was competing in a difficult Three Rivers Conference. The top of the conference for most of the last decade has been Morrison.
This season both Morrison and Erie-Prophetstown – both 2A programs – fielded strong teams. Fulton and Newman both took big steps forward.
The competition has allowed Amboy to adjust to tough pitching and skilled batters.
Senior Destinee Oenes has seen how the team has learned from games against Morrison and Erie-Prophetstown, even if they resulted in losses.
"Morrison had such good pitchers that threw hard, and they could really hit the ball," Oenes said. "This year E-P was exactly the same. But, we need to be challenged. No disrespect to a team like LaMoille, but it doesn't do us much good to come out and beat them by 10 runs. We need a challenge to get us ready for the postseason."
So now the Clippers have come out at the other end. They join an exclusive club of area softball teams to make the state tournament. The level of competition is likely to take another step up.
Win or lose, this year's Clippers know they've changed the culture in Amboy.
"This town has been a football town forever," McCoy said. "Hopefully, this sort of starts to make us a softball town, too. That would be really nice."