Familiar foe — and ending — for SJ-O softball
CHAMPAIGN — Randy Wolken wants his St. Joseph-Ogden softball players to be successful.
That feeling is applicable as long as they are wearing a Spartans’ uniform.
After they’ve graduated, and resurfaced in the opposing dugout as the head coach of a rival school, the sentiments change.
For the second time in Wolken’s 34-year career at SJ-O, his team played one under the direction of a former player.
“It’s bittersweet,” Wolken said following Tuesday’s six-inning 12-2 conquest of a St. Thomas More team coached by ex-Spartan Stacy (Buck) Lueth. “You want to beat them, but it’s a little tougher. They know everything we do.”
SJ-O has clinched the Sangamon Valley Conference title, marking the seventh consecutive year the school has either won or shared the crown. The Spartans are one game away from completing a two-year run where every conference game has been ended by the 10-run rule.
The final SVC game will occur on Thursday when Lueth’s team plays in St. Joseph. One of the first calls she made when hired by St. Thomas More was to her former prep coach.
“Stacy has done a good job with them,” Wolken said, “and has made them very competitive.”
The Sabers won three games a year ago, but are 10-10 this spring with freshman right-hander Leah Allison pitching the majority of the games.
“By the time she’s a junior and senior, she’ll be dominant,” Wolken predicted.
Though she suffered the loss Tuesday, Allison was victimized by a defense which committed seven errors. None of SJ-O’s runs were earned. Allison walked two and struck out two.
One advantage that SJ-O had which Lueth was unable to counter was the green light Wolken gives to the speedsters at the top of his order, Molly McElwee and Kenzie James. He doesn’t give signals for them to steal a base.
McElwee gave the Spartans the lead in the first inning.
After reaching on an error, she stole second, stole third and scored on James’ infield out. During a five-run fourth inning, James was hit by a pitch, stole second, stole third and scored on the third of Mickaela Fleming’s four hits.
“A lot of us can steal bases,” James said.
An underclassman on last year’s senior-laden team, James was unsure what to expect for her final season. One expectation, however, was not to be 23-2 entering the final days of the regular season.
“We lost a lot of seniors who were critical players,” James said. I didn’t think we’d be as good as we are now.”
The keys, she said, are “heart and determination, and we believe in ourselves.”
Wolken is equally surprised.
“I am shocked,” he said. “(Monday) we had six freshmen in at the end of the game.”
Against STM, three ninth-graders started. Two others made appearances.
For nearly a month, SJ-O has been at less than full strength.
“We’ve had to piece things together,” Wolken said.
He took his best catcher (Fleming) and installed her at first base in games when Lexie Boaz (12-0 after beating the Sabers) has had to pitch. The other pitcher, Samantha Fleming, is playing “at about 50 percent,” and Wolken has needed to use her at third base in place of injured Abby Gawthorp (hip-flexor).
SJ-O continues to succeed because the style of play remains similar to years past.
“We haven’t changed much; just the names,” Wolken said. “Our defense is pretty good and we’ve had to manufacture runs a little more.”
Mickaela Fleming and Monk (2-for-4) accounted for six of the nine hits Allison allowed. Boaz pitched a four-hitter, walking one and striking out four.