SJ-O seniors step up to the plate

SJ-O seniors step up to the plate

ATHENS — Standing on the infield dirt by the first-base bag, Randy Wolken let out a chuckle Saturday afternoon.

His St. Joseph-Ogden softball players posed near home plate, their families a mere 30 feet away, capturing the moment for posterity with cameras, cell phones and other electronic devices after the Spartans beat Maroa-Forsyth 6-2 to win a Class 2A sectional title game on Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley's home field.

"We've created a monster here," Wolken said grinning slightly, "and it is that way, but what are you going to do?"

The only coach SJ-O has ever had since the program started in 1980 knew all about postseason success before the current senior class arrived in the SJ-O hallways.

After all, the state's all-time winningest coach, with 1,043 victories going into today's 11 a.m. Athens Super-Sectional game against Williamsville, won a state title in 2006 under the old two-class system. And took seven teams to the state tournament before Emmy Graver, Kenzie Pence and Allie Place suited up for SJ-O.

Those three SJ-O seniors are part of seven seniors that dot this year's roster, but are the only three who have contributed during each of the past four seasons. The past four seasons that have seen the Spartans win four straight sectional titles, meaning four straight trips to Menard County for the site of today's super-sectional game at the Athens Sports Complex.

"I was surprised my freshman year we made it because I didn't realize we'd be that good," Place said. "It's a quick turnaround. We don't really have much time to think about it. It's very challenging."

SJ-O's senior trio is 2-1 in the Athens Super-Sectional, winning titles in 2015 and 2017. Place, an outfielder, Graver, a second baseman her first three seasons before shifting to third base this season, and Pence, a center fielder, are acquainted with what to expect on Memorial Day.

"Every step on the tournament trail is a little more pressure," Wolken said. "These sectional games weren't as tight, but in the super-sectional, every play means something. It's the chance to go to state. You're going to have to play a really, really good team. It is more pressure and more is at stake, but it helps that we've been there."

SJ-O (32-3) brings a 17-game win streak into the game with the Bullets (32-5), last losing 10-8 to Romeoville on April 21 in the championship game of the Clinton Tournament. But even with their sterling record and previous success, the 2018 campaign wasn't without some bumps.

"The middle of the season was pretty tough," Graver said. "We were struggling. As a team, it started clicking in the postseason. We really took it seriously and got to work."

The metal bleachers will be full behind home plate and along the first- and third-base lines at today's game. Fans will line the fences down each line and in the outfield, creating a superb postseason atmosphere. Much like what SJ-O experienced during Saturday's win against Maroa-Forsyth.

"That definitely prepared us for the super-sectional because there will be a bunch of people there," Graver said. "It's good for us."

But SJ-O doesn't want its season to end today. Beat Williamsville, and the Spartans will play in the state tournament for the third time in the last four seasons, taking on either Beecher (30-2) or IC Catholic (26-5) at 5:30 p.m. this Friday in a state semifinal game at the EastSide Centre in East Peoria.

If SJ-O would match up with Beecher, a rematch of the 2017 state title game would take a place. It's a game Beecher won 2-1. And it's not a fond memory for the Spartans.

"They're disappointed we didn't win state last year," Wolken said. "They want to go back. They want that state title."

So the motivation is there for the Spartans. First, though, they'll need to leave Athens with a win.

"I don't know if I've ever wanted anything as much as I want to go far this year and make a mark," SJ-O sophomore catcher Hannah Dukeman said. "I want the seniors to go into college with great memories from their high school careers."