For Eichelbergers, game has deeper meaning than what transpires on the field

For Eichelbergers, game has deeper meaning than what transpires on the field

FISHER — Sydney Eichelberger is aware of the weight a name can carry.

The Eichelberger surname, for example, has been a staple of University of Illinois athletics since the turn of the century.

"I get questions all the time about it," Sydney said. "They say, 'Oh, you're an Eichelberger. Do you have anything to do with Illinois' field?'"

Not directly. But Sydney's great-aunt, affectionately referred to as Shorty, certainly does.

It was through gifts on behalf of Shorty and late husband Paul that Eichelberger Field, home of Illinois softball since its 2001 debut, came into existence.

Shorty is a regular at the Illini's games, admitting she's missed just four since the program's inception.

She'll also frequent Sydney's contests for the Fisher softball team, especially if Sydney and the Bunnies travel within Champaign County.

"It's really great," Shorty said, "because she's actually third generation in this family."

Paul was a respected fast-pitch softball player in his time.

Sydney admits she doesn't know much of her family's older softball exploits. Even if those didn't exist, Sydney would be serving the Eichelberger name quite well on the diamond.

The junior is a two-time News-Gazette All-Area first-team selection, primarily because of her pitching prowess.

The right-hander has never finished a prep campaign with an earned run average above 3.00, and boasted a 1.33 ERA entering the weekend.

She snared 16 wins as a freshman and 20 as a sophomore. She boasts 12 for the Bunnies (18-10) following a complete-game, four-hit effort in a Saturday win over Deer Creek-Mackinaw in the Heart of Illinois Conference Tournament.

Sydney has proven impressive even in some Fisher defeats, such as an 11-inning effort this Wednesday in which she permitted two hits and no earned runs to Tremont.

Whether onlookers know it or not, being an Eichelberger plays a big role in such performances.

"People will always have expectations for me," Sydney said. "I try to go out every time and exceed those expectations and play to my ability, even if they don't know the real story of my last name."

★ ★ ★

After getting into T-ball, Sydney latched on to softball at age 8. She immediately was drawn to working in the circle.

"I would play for a rec league team in Rantoul," Sydney said, "and I would always remember seeing the older girls (pitch). I thought that would be awesome."

Shorty notes she didn't — and still doesn't — have any tips for Sydney, passed down from Paul.

"I was a teenager during the war, World War II, and we didn't have any activities at all," Shorty said. "It's not my field at all because I never played it."

So Sydney would have to learn the game the old-fashioned way: through repetition and hard work.

Recreational softball turned into travel ball at age 12. Sydney trekked as far as California for national competitions.

She shifted to a Chicago-based travel club at 15, introduced to this group by former Fisher star and current Northern Kentucky softball junior Toree Stalter.

"I thought it would give me a lot more opportunities, such as going on to the next level in college," Sydney said. "Playing up at 18U as a 15-year-old really had an improvement on my game. I had to make that transition so quickly. It's a big part of where I am now."

★ ★ ★

Much of Sydney's burgeoning legacy with Fisher softball has been built as a pitcher.

Tossing 328 innings and compiling 335 strikeouts in your first two high school seasons will set that standard.

But Sydney was no slouch with a bat in her hands at that time, posting a cumulative .375 hitting average and 25 RBI.

Yet she knew she had to better those figures this season with the graduation of fellow reigning N-G first-teamer Becca Clanton, who hit .464 with 15 home runs and 59 RBI in 2018.

"This is my best overall season for pitching and hitting," said Sydney, whose .452 average leads Fisher. "As a pitcher, I never really worked on hitting much until this year, so I can see improvement with my bat this year. I'm glad to see I can contribute with that."

Shorty has observed plenty of talented softball athletes across various levels of play. And even though her most recent viewing of Sydney wasn't the best — Sydney was tagged for eight earned runs in an 11-0 loss at Mahomet-Seymour this past Monday — Shorty offers high praise.

"Even though she didn't have a very good look (Monday)," Shorty said, "she has all the potential, I think."

★ ★ ★

There's still plenty of time for Sydney to display that for the Bunnies, who open Class 1A postseason action Tuesday as a No. 2 seed against either No. 8 St. Anne or No. 9 Donovan in the Dwight Regional.

She's also thinking to her future, though, signified by a recent decision to commit to Parkland College softball.

"My family's close, and I think that would open a window to possibly go play at Illinois," Sydney said. "To have a chance to play on Eichelberger Field."

That'd obviously be a fitting way for Sydney to wrap up her softball tenure in east central Illinois.

What does Shorty think about it?"I would really like that," Shorty said. "I want her to be successful."

That would be a unique sort of success for Sydney, given the queries she's used to fielding.

"They always say, 'Oh, are you going to Illinois to play?'" Sydney said. "They think you're going to have the ability to do these things because you're already in the softball world, because you have your name."

So it'd be significant to Sydney if she's able to back up that idea.

It'd mean a lot to Shorty, too. She only wishes Paul had gotten to see Sydney expand the Eichelberger softball heritage.

"She was born after he'd passed away," Shorty said. "(It's) very special. He would be thrilled to death."

Area roll call

Sydney Eichelberger and her Fisher teammates are one of 22 area small-school softball programs, according to the IHSA record books, who have already won a regional title. Here's how many regional championships these programs have won entering the 2019 postseason that starts on Monday afternoon:

SCHOOL TITLES LAST TITLE

St. Joseph-Ogden 35 2018

Prairie Central 13 2008

Monticello 12 2014

Tuscola 9 2018

Schlarman 7 2011

PBL 6 2012

Fisher 5 2017

Unity 5 2017

Blue Ridge 5 2014

ALAH 4 2017

GCMS 4 2014

Arcola 4 2013

Hoopeston Area 4 2009

Salt Fork 3 2018

LeRoy 3 2017

Villa Grove 3 2005

BHRA 2 2011

Argenta-Oreana 1 2018

Sullivan 1 2014

Heritage 1 2012

Watseka 1 2007

Westville 1 2006

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