CHAMPAIGN — Softball is a priority for Becca Chrisman. It has been since third grade, when she took up the sport.
“I want to play in college,” Chrisman said. “I love the game.”
Her attitude, in years past, wasn’t shared by other students at Champaign Central.
While enduring 18 consecutive sub-.500 seasons, the Maroons haven’t always had players who were interested in participating at the high school level.
Last year, when current head coach Jamal Maatuka was an assistant, the staff recruited some freshmen who showed athletic ability in other sports.
“They weren’t really softball players,” Maatuka said, “but there are a few of them we can count on.”
Chrisman, a junior first baseman, is the team captain and leader of a youthful squad. Every other starter is a freshman or sophomore.
“It’s a great group of girls,” Chrisman said. “I have faith in them.”
Playing a varsity schedule with such a young — and inexperienced squad — has not been a good combination, though Maatuka believes the signs for the future are positive.
“We’re a pretty good JV team playing a tough varsity schedule,” he said, “and nobody brings back the whole team like we do.”
That Central team will be together for at least one more game. The Maroons handled Decatur Eisenhower 15-3 on Monday to advance into today’s Class 3A regional semifinal game against top-seeded Centennial at Urbana High School.
Eisenhower scored twice before Central batted, but the Maroons (3-24) regrouped despite going down in order in the first inning.
“We’ve learned perseverance,” Chrisman said, “that one mistake, or two, doesn’t count for the whole game. There have been a lot of first innings where the other team has been ahead.”
One reason a Central program that had one total win the past two seasons is experiencing success is that Chrisman is not the only squad member devoted to softball.
Five freshmen are in the starting lineup — including right-handed pitcher Shireen Hassan — and each one has summer travel-ball experience with the local Blue Ice program.
That gives Maatuka a good starting point.
“We have some young ladies who can catch, throw and swing,” Maatuka said.
Two of those freshmen — cleanup hitter Renata Nugent and third baseman Maddie Omer — had two hits apiece against Eisenhower (0-27).
Maatuka saw the program’s progress even before the squad members. Central played eventual 20-win teams Normal West and Mahomet-Seymour in early-season games, and the coach said the 10-run losses “made us think we haven’t gotten better.”
He emphasized the positives, and Chrisman has helped the team remain upbeat.
“We may lose a game, but that doesn’t mean we can’t win the next one,” Chrisman said. “We can beat any team.”
Maatuka doesn’t place unrealistic expectations on his players. For Hassan — or sophomore Hannah Young, when she pitches — there is one goal.
“We want them to throw strikes, and the defense has to make the plays,” he said.
Though Central committed two errors against the Panthers, they also produced highlight-reel plays, including a throw from deep shortstop by Imani Maatuka and a shoestring catch by Nugent in center field.
“They’re still learning what we do and why we do it,” Jamal Maatuka said, “but they’ve been on a slow, steady progression, like we expected.”
Central’s 13-hit attack was led by Young (3 for 3) and Ellie Knox, who drove in five runs with a bases-loaded double and a two-run single.
Hassan, meanwhile, accomplished her mission. She walked no one (but hit two batters) and struck out four in her seven-hitter.
Chrisman’s role can’t be understated.
“We treat her like our senior because next year that’s what she’ll be,” Jamal Maatuka said. “She has embraced the leadership role. We’re a team that has the discipline teams need to be successful, and she is the catalyst.”
Lincoln 10, Rantoul 1. Lacey Bertram went 2 for 2 and scored the Eagles’ lone run in a Class 3A regional quarterfinal loss at Rantoul.
Charleston 6, Danville 4. Chuckie Robinson went 3 for 3 and Michael Vascura had two hits and two RBI for the Vikings in a home loss. Vascura and teammate Chase Thurston (2 for 3) each doubled.