Modesty all part of the game for SJ-O's Dowling

Modesty all part of the game for SJ-O's Dowling

ST. JOSEPH — Bailey Dowling is described in many ways when it comes to softball. Among the most-common phrases is the word "humble."

For confirmation of this, look no further than earlier this week.

The St. Joseph-Ogden sophomore was standing just beyond the local recreational league fields where she played T-ball in her early years. It's the location she selected for her News-Gazette All-Area softball Player of the Year photograph, a process she's now gone through twice in as many seasons.

Initially, she didn't explain the additional reason she wanted to visit this spot. Her father, Brett helped out, revealing that Bailey donated to the St. Joseph rec league the $1,000 she received for being named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year earlier this month.

"I said, 'I think that's tremendous,'" recalled Randy Wolken, SJ-O softball's recently retired coach. "She always wants to give back to the softball community. To me, that's the best way to do it."

Wolken revealed another of Bailey's ventures with which the youngster wasn't exactly forthcoming.

"Did you also know that Bailey came up with the idea to try and have a home run derby with the IHSA?" Wolken asked.

According to Wolken, Dowling submitted a proposal to IHSA assistant executive director Tracie Henry about a power-hitting showcase, perhaps around the time of the state tournament.

Dowling's idea included the donation of funds accrued to the family of Olivia Sonetz, a Normal West softball player who died in a March car accident.

"I thought that was very mature on her part," Wolken said. "(Henry) said, 'It's a good idea, and you've really done your ... research on this.'"

For Bailey Dowling, softball is not just about her. Even if she is, in Wolken's mind, the best prep player in the state today, Bailey is making her softball career go beyond her own plaudits.

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Softball wasn't always Bailey's main athletic focus. Far from it, actually.

"I used to play soccer when I was really little, and I loved it," Bailey said. "My mom put my name down on the list for T-ball, and I didn't want to (play). ... I always told her, 'I don't want to go.'"

That rapidly changed. It was little moments, like when she remembers sliding into a base and coming up covered in dirt, that made her fall in love with the sport.

"When they're that young, they hit the ball and some kids run the wrong direction," Brett said. "But she soaked everything in right from the beginning."

Brett and wife Nicki, a 1991 SJ-O grad who played softball for Wolken, have been actively involved in Bailey's softball life ever since. Brett said it's a major reason he decided to work in construction and essentially become his own boss.

"That's why I do what I do — so I don't miss anything," Brett said. "It's very important to us, both my wife and I."

In fact, the Dowlings headed to California on Wednesday for their latest offseason softball competition. Treks to Colorado and, again, California are slated for later in the summer with the Beverly Bandits, Bailey's travel softball team.

That Bailey is a globetrotting athlete certainly leads to some tired moments. By her own description, softball "just doesn't stop" for her outside November and December, months when she intentionally breaks from playing.

But it also comes with its benefits, especially for family bonding.

"(Trips are) always fun," Bailey said. "We'll have jam sessions when we get really close to wherever we're going. It's never been hard asking (my parents), 'Hey, can you take me here?' They're always there for me."

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Bailey has so much going on in the softball realm, of course, because she's already a dominant athlete at 16 years old.

The Alabama commit's latest prep campaign, which ended with a walk-off loss to Williamsville in a Class 2A super-sectional game, resulted in a .657 batting average with an area-best 21 home runs and 68 RBI.

Bailey's on pace to crush the IHSA longballs record — 60, a mark set by current Illini Stephanie Abello at Benet Academy — as she's already hit 43 home runs in two years. She is also the only player in state history to clear the fence more than 20 times in multiple seasons.

But there's more. Wolken describes Bailey as a "five-tool player" who can run the bases and field the ball well. She also was a team captain for the Spartans despite being a sophomore.

None of this has resulted in Bailey becoming too big for her britches, though.

"A lot of people who don't know her say, 'Is she a prima donna?' And I say, 'No,'" Wolken said. "She's very humble. She doesn't brag."

To hammer home that point, Bailey's moment of clarity regarding just how good she could be didn't come in the form of a long homer or an amazing diving play at shortstop.

"(It was) when I first started getting lessons from other people," Bailey said. "I've worked with a lot of people before, and they always told me that I can make a difference. And that hasn't really hit home until, obviously, a couple years ago."

There's an interesting aspect of Bailey's success that ties back to her parents.

In some cases of an athlete quickly rising to a lofty position, there's the chance for conflict with the coaching staff — over advice given or playing time.

But Wolken describes Brett and Nicki's expectations for Bailey as something that has actually helped him when coaching the star pupil.

"They supported me and the program a lot," Wolken said. "So that helped her become a better player, and she has super support from her parents."

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One individual who is a sort of extended family member for Bailey won't be around the SJ-O program next season. At least not as frequently as he once was.

Wolken stepped aside earlier this month after 39 years of being the only coach the Spartans ever had. Bailey is going to miss that extra paternal presence.

"I told multiple people that (during) game days, usually coaches would be worried about the game. But he was more worried about the players," Bailey said. "Most people wouldn't do that."

Not to worry. Brett and Nicki will remain in the stands for the next two SJ-O seasons. It's a comforting realization for Bailey, especially during the Spartans' most challenging moments.

"I remember after we got our trophy (for finishing second at state in 2017), I just walked up to my dad and I started balling," Bailey said. "And that's exactly how this year was, too. I just skipped everyone else, and I just went right for Dad."

Just because Bailey is a standout softball player doesn't mean she has wanted to make her achievements and shortcomings all about herself. It's evident in the way she talks about her family, as well as her recent philanthropic doings.

But she did let Brett and Nicki know she's thinking about herself with one future decision.

"She made it clear that she does not want us to move to Alabama," Brett said with a laugh. "We're exploring motor home possibilities or a condo or something. She wants her space."

Honor Roll: News-Gazette softball Players of the Year

YEAR  PLAYER SCHOOL

2018: Bailey Dowling    St. Joseph-Ogden

2017: Bailey Dowling    St. Joseph-Ogden

2016: Anna Watson    Tuscola

2015: Mady Poulter    St. Joseph-Ogden

2014: Chrissy Gadbury    Monticello

2013: Alie Tarrant    Mahomet-Seymour

2012: Elizabeth Everingham    St. Joseph-Ogden

2011: Elizabeth Everingham    St. Joseph-Ogden

2010: Hannah Bowen    St. Joseph-Ogden

2009: Monica Rondon    Champaign Central

2008: Kelsi Hoey    Tuscola

2007: Terra Ramsey    Westville

2006: Morgan Finn    St. Joseph-Ogden

2005: Kaci Young    St. Joseph-Ogden

2004: Nikki Davis    Arthur-Lovington

2003: Elizabeth Piatt    Monticello

2002: Merdle Anders    St. Joseph-Ogden

2001: Molly Lawhead    Monticello

2000: Joella Koss    Unity

1999: A.J. Reeley    Danville

1998: Kristen King    St. Joseph-Ogden

1997: Kristen King    St. Joseph-Ogden

1996: Kelly Duitsman    St. Joseph-Ogden

1995: Syndrea Porter    Rantoul

1994: Erin Riddle    Rantoul

1993: Ali Franzen    Rantoul

1992: Michele Suits    St. Joseph-Ogden

1991: Amy Scharlau    St. Joseph-Ogden

1990: Stef Fiscus    St. Joseph-Ogden

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