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Softball: Whitman guides Clippers from softball wilderness

Big Red uprising

Published: Saturday, June 28, 2014 12:00 a.m. CDT
(Alex T. Paschal/
Coach of the Year Kelly Whitman.

When you've endured the lowest of lows, it makes a person appreciate it when something great comes along.

Such is the softball odyssey of Kelly Whitman, who recently completed her sixth season as head coach of the Amboy varsity softball team.

The great part is easy. The Clippers finished 22-11 this past season, and became the first Amboy girls team in any sport to advance to a state tournament.

There were three fire truck escorts into town after the team won regional, then sectional, then supersectional titles. There was a sea of red-clad fans who descended on Eastside Centre in East Peoria to watch the team play at state, as well as at stops along the tournament trail.

Later this summer, the Clipper softballers will be marshals of the Depot Days parade in Amboy.

"We had unbelievable support from the community," Whitman said. "Being the first Amboy girls team to make it past the supersectional level, it was a pretty big deal for everybody in town."

It's heady stuff for Whitman, who was once pretty much humbled by the sport, both as a player and as a coach.

Growing up in Dixon in the early 1990s, the only softball option for Kelly Smoot (she married Shaun Whitman in 2005) was the slow-pitch variety offered by the park district. It left her and her teammates ill-prepared for high school ball, where fireballing hurlers are the norm.

"I remember playing catcher, and everybody on the team but me tried to pitch," Whitman said, a smile coming across her face in the process. "I'd be back there, and the pitches were flying over the dugout. We just didn't have anybody that could pitch."

Whitman played on winless teams as a freshman and a sophomore. At the varsity level, things improved a bit, but the Duchesses, she recalled, didn't crack double-digit wins when she was an upperclassman.

That experience prepared Whitman for what she faced when arriving in Amboy in the fall of 2000, her first teaching job after graduating from Aurora University the previous year. Amboy didn't offer softball until the spring of her first year on the job, and as one might expect, successes were few and far between.

"When I came to Amboy, it was the same thing," Whitman said. "You had to try to develop a pitcher, and that's something very difficult to do when you don't start until high school. It's something you have to work at, and you need to start early."

Whitman was an assistant coach to Tina Eller at Amboy for the first 7 years, and teaching the basics took precedence over winning. There were two winless seasons to begin, and in year 3, the Clippers broke through with three wins.

"The mercy rule was after three innings back then," Whitman said, "and it was a big deal for us to get past three innings."

Gradually, however, things got better. Amboy won its first conference games in 2004, and there were three consecutive eight-win campaigns starting in 2006. A summer team, the Amboy Rage, started producing talented players ready to compete at the high school level.

Whitman's first year as head coach, in 2009, brought another step in the right direction with a 12-13-1 record. Two years later came a big breakthrough: a 25-7 record, and a regional championship.

More success, including regional titles, came in 2012 (28-4) and 2013 (16-8), and then, finally, an extended postseason run was in the cards this past season. It was almost over, however, before it even started.

In the finals of the Eastland Regional, the Clippers drew Newman, a team they had defeated twice in the regular season. Neither of those games, however, came with Comet freshman Samantha Miller in the circle.

Through four innings, Newman led 2-0, and Amboy had done nothing at the plate up to that point.

"She had us on the ropes," Whitman said of Miller.

In the fifth, however, the Clippers managed to load the bases with two outs. One of the team's best hitters, Kaitlyn Liebing, hit what appeared to be a routine fly ball. It was dropped by Comets outfielder Rachel Grennan, however, and three runs scored on the play. Amboy won, 3-2.

"She made a great run on it, but it just hit that glove and bounced out," Whitman said. "That little bounce out was the fate of our season. If she doesn't drop that ball, it could have been the end of our season very easily."

Amboy recorded its 20th win by bludgeoning Hiawatha 13-0 in the Pearl City Sectional semifinal, then got a walkoff home run by senior Destinee Oenes to beat Orangeville 3-2 in the sectional final.

At the DeKalb Supersectional, freshman Delaney Wilhelm, a late season call-up, provided an RBI triple and a sparkling defensive play to prevent a run from scoring as Amboy took a 1-0 decision against Putnam County.

"It was always somebody new stepping up, making that big hit or making that big play," Whitman said. "That's what gets you down to state. Everybody stepped up when they needed to, and that was great."

Liebing, whose older sisters Lauren and Hillary played for Whitman, was quick to credit her coach for guiding the Clippers to a level once seemed unfathomable.

"She's just a really positive coach," Liebing said. "No one wants to play for somebody who's putting you down all the time."

Whitman was quick to credit her assistant coaches: Sam Jones, Linda Klein and Heather Jurs. A former all-state pitcher at Freeport, Jurs, a first-year coach and teacher at Amboy, was instrumental in Doege becoming an all-state pitcher as a freshman, as she learned a curveball and screwball to keep hitters off-balance.

Doege and Liebing are two of six starters who will return to the lineup next spring, and expectations will be high, considering the successful run the team has been on.

"You're only as good as your players," Whitman said. "There were a lot of games where they could have laid down and let the outcome be the outcome, but they fought back, and that's what you have to do. In previous years, we would let one bad inning dictate the whole game. That's something I tried to stress – don't let one at-bat or one error dictate the game."

This summer, Whitman's involvement with softball will be playing in a rec league in Polo. Some of her players will play on traveling teams, while others will concentrate their effort on sharpening their volleyball or basketball skills.

Come next spring, however, she's confident the Clippers she coaches will be ready to sail again.

"You can't be content with the success that you've had," Whitman said. "You've got to work hard and continue to build on it."

Whitman file

High school: Dixon, class of 1995

College: Aurora, class of 1999

Family: Husband, Shaun; daughters, Brittlyn, 6; Hannah, 3

FYI: Teacher and coach at Amboy since 2000-01 school year. ... Guided softball team to 122-58-1 record in six seasons as head coach. ... Guided 2014 Clippers to 22-11 mark and first-ever berth in 1A state tournament, where they placed fourth

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