CHAMPAIGN – There is no better illustration of the adage about not judging a book by its cover than to look at Monica Rondon.
The book in her case is Champaign Central softball, the team Rondon played for this spring as a high school junior. By any standards, the season was not a success. The Maroons finished with five wins in 28 games.
The followup theory would be the school had no outstanding players. That theory would be 100 percent incorrect.
"I can't forget her," said Bob Grimes, whose Normal Community team lost in the Class 4A sectional finals. "You see that once in a while in high school softball, one player that's awesome and the rest are marginal."
Talk to Grimes and you learn quickly which category he'd place Rondon, Central's unflappable left-handed catcher.
"I can't forget her," Grimes said. "She's a real bulldog. She hit a home run against our No. 1 pitcher and it was an awe-inspiring, no-doubt-about-it shot. It cleared the fence easily, by 30 feet I'd say."
The 5-foot-3 Rondon set a school record this year, slamming eight home runs while batting .553.
"With her technique, her power and her catching ability, I would say she'd have a college future," Grimes said. "A lot of people would be glad to have her."
Diamond in the rough
Rondon's summer coach with the East Central Illinois Dynamite, Schlarman's Randy Skaggs, has similar views.
"She has a Division I arm, the ability to take criticism and tremendous pop in her bat as shown by the number of home runs against quality pitchers," Skaggs said. "She thinks the game and plays harder than anyone. She reminds me of Megan Riggs (former Heritage standout) as they both play the game full speed and sometimes above that level."
Despite playing for three head coaches in three years, she was an All-Area second-team selection as a freshman and a sophomore before earning a first-team designation and Area Player of the Year honors as a junior.
"Monica is a leader in the building and certainly on the field," Central athletic director John Woods said. "In practice, she is the one sprinting from drill to drill.
"When Betsey (Barrow) took over (as coach in mid-May), she became sort of an assistant coach, helping develop teammates. She is one of the hardest-working kids and is well-respected by her teammates because of her work ethic."
Bloomington coach Kat Mason, whose team advanced to the super-sectional level in Class 3A, said it was impossible to overlook Rondon, who was a unanimous selection to the All-Big 12 team.
"She was a positive player who tried to uplift her team," Mason said. "She was really vocal and you could tell who their leader was. I was impressed with her."
Catching the bug
Before turning her attention to softball, Rondon played baseball with the boys for seven years, starting with T-Ball and continuing through Little League and one summer of Pony League.
She naturally gravitated to the catching position.
"When I was little, Dad and I would watch 'Bad News Bears' (starring Tatum O'Neal) and I wanted to be like Tatum O'Neal," Rondon said. "I watch it all the time, at least once a month."
Besides, she liked how she looked in her gear.
"I looked like a Power Ranger," she said.
Her baseball background created a difficult transition when she switched to softball.
"The softball was like a basketball and I thought, 'I can't throw this,' " Rondon said, "and the swings are completely different. I'd swing over it or under it and think, 'I shouldn't be missing these.' The first couple weeks were very frustrating."
Now, she rarely misses.
"That shows she's a quality player," Mason said. "Good hitters won't see a lot of good pitches. That's a testament to having good at-bats."
Though she is regarded as a calming influence on the softball diamond, it wasn't always that way. During her Little League career, there'd be a Rondon-to-Rondon battery with brother Justin (now a sophomore at Central) pitching to his sister.
"If he threw a bad pitch in the dirt, I'd throw it back to him as hard as I could," Monica Rondon said, "but now I hardly ever get angry."
An exuberant player
When she joined the ECI team a year ago, Rondon's eyes were opened to a whole new world of softball. When she made mistakes, Skaggs made certain she knew.
"I've been chewed out in the middle of a game, but I told him, 'I want to learn everything.' I never get mad at him for chewing me out," she said.
The summer regimen is all part of a plan to improve her game so that she can continue her career beyond high school.
"I've never thought about not playing," Rondon said. "It's exciting to think about playing in college where every person loves the game and I can't imagine not playing past college."
Is she close?
"Some days, I think I could play college right now, and other days I think I'm nowhere near it," Rondon said. "I feel there is so much more I can still improve."
That desire is something Skaggs has witnessed.
"She has a true passion for the game," he said. "She is a coach's dream as she is a tremendous talent, but just as much a fantastic person."
As one of Central's team leaders, Rondon was careful how she shared her knowledge and made her points.
"I didn't act like, 'You don't know this?' but I'd explain why things happen and try to pass it along," she said. "From the summer, I've learned so much."
Pursuing a career
The words of praise from respected Big 12 coaches such as Grimes and Mason were not a surprise to Rondon, yet the sentiments were not ones she dwelled on during the season.
"When I got compliments, I tried not to listen," she said. "Things never fit. It's like, 'You're the best player on the team,' but look at the team. We were not a strong team. Sometimes, it was so frustrating. I'd think, 'Even if I do this, it won't help (the team win).' "
Rondon realizes emotional tirades have a detrimental effect.
"Sometimes I've exploded on the field, but I realized that's not the time or the place to yell at people," she said. "You have to keep encouraging people. Being discouraging makes everyone more frustrated."
The words that will mean the most to Rondon are the ones she's still awaiting: a scholarship offer from a collegiate coach.
Murray State has shown the most interest thus far, but there has been contact from Illinois State, Missouri, Penn State and Southern Illinois, among others.
"I've been going to Illini games since they started (2000). That's definitely my dream. It's my hometown team. I go to Eichelberger Field and imagine playing on that field."
She's given plenty of thought to her future and can see herself "owning a business, maybe a coffee shop," she said.
Regardless of her profession, she hopes there's one given: "I see myself coaching," Rondon said.
She'll have to remember to send a thank-you to Tatum O'Neal for her inspiring performance.