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Softball: New faces, same destination

Shortstop Karlie Mellott is one of only four returning starters for a Sterling team that is making its second straight appearance at the Class 3A state softball tournament. The Golden Warriors lost seven key seniors from last year's fourth-place squad.
Shortstop Karlie Mellott is one of only four returning starters for a Sterling team that is making its second straight appearance at the Class 3A state softball tournament. The Golden Warriors lost seven key seniors from last year's fourth-place squad.

Back-to-back trips to the state softball tournament aren’t really all that rare.

Not saying they aren’t special – there’s no question about that – but teams make return trips to East Peoria all the time. Heck, even drawing from our small area pool, teams from the Sauk Valley have made a habit of making annual reservations to play at EastSide Centre (see:
Morrison and Milledgeville).

This year, it’s Sterling’s turn to beat a familiar path south down Route 40 to put the capper on another special, successful season.

The way the Golden
Warriors have done it is a tried-and-true method: strong pitching, solid defense, and the perfect blend of power hitters and table-setters who can all come through in the clutch.

Throw in a scrappy attitude, some all-around athleticism, and off-the-charts softball IQ, and the formula for postseason success is complete.

But the most surprising – and impressive – piece of the Sterling puzzle is who the Warriors stick in the lineup and in the field.

Lots of teams can repeat the feat of a state tournament berth. Very few can do it with a nearly brand-new cast of characters.

“I think it’s pretty odd,” Sterling coach Becki Edmondson said, “because I don’t know how many teams can graduate seven seniors who start – at key positions, too – and continue to have the same kind of success immediately.”

On the eve of Sterling’s second state semifinal in as many seasons, Edmondson admitted that she never expected her squad to reach these heights so soon after losing last year’s accomplished core of senior leaders.

“I guess you always think the year after a season like we had [in 2013] would be a rebuilding year,” Edmondson said, “and that was kind of the conversation we were having as coaches at the beginning of the year.

“We thought, ‘OK, maybe in a couple of years, when this young group is juniors and seniors with a lot of varsity experience, we’ll be back at state.’ I knew we’d be good, but never imagined we’d put together another run like this.”

I have to admit, we had very similar conversations in the Sauk Valley sports department after our first-ever trip to cover the 3A state tournament. I mean, just take a trip down memory lane at all the pieces the Warriors had to replace:

Two talented, veteran pitchers in Stephanie Kester and Priscilla Aponte, as well as Aponte’s reliable glove at third base. A smart, savvy catcher in Bailey Oetting. Pure speed – on the bases and in center field – in Cassidy Gillihan. Power in the middle of the lineup in Jenn Rahn. Dugout leadership in McKenna Pearson. A little bit of everything in Gabi Trujillo.

Let that sink in for a minute. That’s not just a laundry list of pieces to replace, that’s a grocery list that will fill up a few shopping carts.

It would be no surprise for the younger groups following that impressive core to press a little, maybe try and do too much in an effort to prove that they, too, can inspire players of the future.

But that hasn’t been the case at all … and maybe that says all you need to know about the character of this year’s youngsters.

“These girls haven’t really talked a whole lot about last year’s team,” said Edmondson, who took over during the offseason after serving as an assistant coach for the past decade. “They know who those girls were, they watched them play the game, and they learned from them.

“But they’re not trying to prove who they are. They’re just a young group of athletes who are playing the game they way they know how to play it. We were very lucky that we had the right girls to step up and fill the right roles, players who really trust each other and what they’re capable of.”

The Warriors lost pitchers, and they get a pitcher (Lexy Staples). They lose a catcher, they get two in return (Lauren Fritz & Nadia Trujillo). The corner infielders (Erin Stroup & Darien Bardoner) and outfielders (Abri Hale & Emily McDonald) fit beautifully around some experience up the middle (SS Karlie Mellott, 2B Gabby Sandoval & CF Shannon Long).

It doesn’t hurt to have a returning SVM Player of the Year in Mellott, as well as an outspoken fellow senior in Bardoner, to provide leadership.

And, as Edmondson has pointed out to myself and my colleagues on more than one occasion, it’s a group who has been on the big stage before. Just check out the Little League World Series past champions list for proof of that.

“They’ve played together a long time, and it’s not like they haven’t been in big games before,” Edmondson said. “The immaturity you might expect just isn’t there. There’s never any panic, they never get overanxious, it’s just sheer determination. They know every girl on this roster can be counted on to step up and be the hero – they’ve shown that all through the postseason – and they’re not going to go down without a fight.”

That may be the biggest lesson of all these girls have learned from those who came before them. Sterling pride lives on, and will, as long as athletes like the ones who have filled these two cores of the softball program keep coming through.

Last year’s Warriors set the table. This year’s Warriors have bellied up and feasted.

We always knew they would. It’s just happened a little sooner than expected.

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