STERLING – Coming off another successful season, the Newman softball team isn’t the type to get complacent. A fourth-place finish in Class 1A 2 years ago and back-to-back regional titles have the current Comets hungry to bring home more hardware from East Peoria.
“We have all the pieces to make a state run,” Newman coach JD Waldschmidt said. “Obviously you have to have a little luck to be down there, and have health. As a coach, I just try not to mess it up. It’s the girls’ season. They dictate how it goes. We just try to guide them when they need it.”
“Physcially, we’re a lot faster and more in shape than we were last year,” senior pitcher Lakyn Waldschmidt said. “All around, we’re looking really good.”
Being faster is saying something for a program that lost two key seniors in Rhyanna Hadden and Hillary Grennan to graduation. The Comets return three of the area’s best hitters in Lakyn Waldschmidt, Madison Craft and Mady Ferris.
Waldschmidt, a second team all-state selection in 2A last year, batted .514 with a .531 on-base percentage. Craft led the area with a .568 batting average, was second in on-base percentage (.615), smacked 12 doubles, and scored 30 runs. Ferris hit .526, was on base three-fifths of the time (.600 OBP), and finished 2016 with 11 doubles, five triples, and 31 runs.
Both Craft and Ferris were third-team all-staters and first-team all-TRAC selections.
“A strength is our speed and ability to put the ball in play,” Ferris said. “Last season, we could get girls on base, but not get them in.”
Leadoff hitter Trinity Martinez also returns to give Newman a top four in the lineup that no opponent can pitch around. The incredible depth in the lineup gives the coaching staff a plethora of options to light up the scoreboard.
“When I jot down a lineup, I look at our 7 and 8 hitters and they should be in the 2, 5 or 6 slot,” JD Waldschmidt said. “Having so many girls on the roster, it’s so competitive in practice. They know they have to work hard. I see us putting up a lot of runs this year.”
If the Comets don’t have the bats going one day, they can rely on a stellar pitching staff. Lakyn Waldschmidt was named the TRAC Player of the Year last season for her hitting, but more so for her contributions in the circle. Her 19 wins equaled the Comets’ entire win total in 2016, while her 0.92 ERA led the area. The workhorse of the Newman staff (137.1 innings) stuck out 131 batters, tying her with possible new teammate Payton Yanes for second in the area last season.
“I think our pitching staff will be a lot deeper this year,” Lakyn Waldschmidt said. “We’ll be able to bring a little different element in the circle.”
Newman suffered a big blow last season when pitcher Samantha Miller didn’t recover from a knee injury she suffered in 2015. Miller tried to rehab the injury, but suffered a setback at a tryout at Illinois Central College. That setback will cost Miller her senior season in 2017 with the Comets.
“I feel terrible for her,” JD Waldschmidt said. “We wanted her to go out on her own terms. Her knee just didn’t recover from the injury.”
Newman should be OK despite Miller’s absence. Yanes would bolster the rotation immediately if she is cleared by the IHSA. Even if she is declared ineligible, the Comets will have a solid 1-2 punch of Lakyn Waldschmidt and sophomore Hailey Frank. Frank was the No. 2 pitcher for Newman last season, as she acclimated to the varsity level on the fly.
“She’s looked better than ever in practice,” JD Waldschmidt said of Frank. “She has a very bright future here at Newman. Her improvement from freshman year to this year has been tremendous.”
To prep for the postseason, Newman made its schedule as tough and loaded as possible. The Comets picked up a doubleheader with Somonauk, a school that has won regionals four of the last five seasons and finished second in 1A in 2015. Newman also accepted an invite to the inaugural Illinois Coaches Association tournament in May, where they will play a 3A or a 4A school.
“We’ve really beefed up our schedule while staying in our 35-game limit,” JD Waldschmidt said. “That’s to put our girls in situations with good hitters and good pitching. Year in and year out though, our conference is loaded. We’re pretty battle-tested come postseason.”
The TRAC East will be tougher to win this season with the addition of Erie-Prophetstown to the division. The Comets edged the Panthers 6-5 in last year’s regional title game. If they can win the conference, Newman is confident it can end up at state.
“I’m hoping to be conference champs and go to state,” senior captain Grace Ely said.
“As three seniors that played on that team, we want to go out with a bang,” Lakyn Waldschmidt said. “I’m 100 percent confident we can make it to state.”
The combination of talent and experience on the Newman roster has the coaches shaking their heads – but in a good way. A senior-laden core must gel with younger contributors to end the season where and when they want.
“We’re so far ahead now compared to where we were last year,” coach Waldschmidt said. “After practice, the coaches shake our heads about it. The seniors who were on the state team 2 years ago played major roles on that team. They want to go out like gangbusters, and on their own terms.”