DECATUR — When athletic teams establish preseason goals, they need to be rooted both in a program’s present and past in order to feel obtainable.
For Mahomet-Seymour softball, one needs to look beyond the high school realm to understand why the Bulldogs truly believed a Class 3A state tournament berth was within reach this spring.
Because M-S softball doesn’t possess the most robust record as far as previous postseason results are concerned.
“I coached some of these girls in junior high, and so I knew what their capabilities were at that point,” said James Heinold, in his first season as the Bulldogs’ high school coach. “It was just a matter of getting everybody to believe it. And, I think, when they started to believe it, things started happening.”
What’s happening later this week hasn’t happened in school history.
M-S (27-5) will compete in the 3A state tournament, first drawing St. Ignatius (29-8-1) in Friday’s 12:30 p.m. semifinal at Peoria’s Louisville Slugger Sports Complex.
The Bulldogs are two victories away from capping their rapid rise to the top of the 3A mountain with a first-place state championship trophy.
“This was our goal from the beginning of the year,” Heinold said after his squad knocked off reigning Class 3A state champion Highland 4-1 in Monday evening’s Decatur Super-Sectional. “We’re not satisfied with where we’re at. We want to keep winning.”
M-S softball has done some of that during the last few decades. Just not much come playoff time.
The Bulldogs’ all-time IHSA hardware haul entering the 2022 postseason was four regional championships, the most recent one earned in 2018.
So none of Heinold’s current athletes ever had hoisted a softball postseason plaque at the high-school level until M-S defeated Danville 8-3 on May 27 in a regional final game in Mahomet.
Why, then, did the Bulldogs’ players carry so much confidence into their playoff run?
Beyond boasting a 22-5 record and a No. 1 seed, some of them also helped Mahomet-Seymour Junior High softball to the 2016 IESA Class AA state tournament.
Though those Bulldogs were ousted in the quarterfinal round via a 3-0 loss to Olympia, a seed was planted. And it’s sprouting into a possible state-champion flower several years later.
Seniors Karley Yergler, Abby Akers, Chloe Truax, Jami Marriott and Jessica Hawk all were seventh-graders on that junior-high roster, which Heinold oversaw.
“Pretty much right from the start,” Yergler said when asked how long it took her to believe this year’s Mahomet-Seymour High School team could contend for a state title. “I never doubted us from the start. We just started off really strong and kept going.”
“We’re glad we can start our (careers) at state and we can finish at state,” Akers added. “We played with Heinold (both times), and we’re so excited.”
The upperclassmen’s positivity has spread down to their younger teammates, as well.
“I was starting to feel like we were going to (go to state) all season. We were going pretty good,” freshman Madi White said. “I’m very confident in my team and what we’re capable of.”
Akers said one game in particular this spring helped her realize the Bulldogs had some postseason staying power.
Last year’s team, which finished with a 16-8 record under coach Lisa Ayers and lost in a regional final, suffered a 13-3 defeat versus Class 4A opponent Normal Community during the regular season.
In this year’s rematch, M-S posted a 4-2 victory.
“That was a turning point for us,” Akers said, “and we knew, ‘Hey, we can hit the ball. We can do what we (know we’re capable of), and we can go really far this year.’”
It certainly isn’t just the seniors chipping in to propel the Bulldogs to Louisville Slugger Sports Complex.
Heinold’s starting lineup Monday contained four seniors in Akers (first base), Yergler (pitcher), Truax (right field) and Jadyn Hannah (center field). But it also featured two juniors in catcher Kenadi Granadino and designated hitter Jenna Wade, one sophomore in shortstop Maddie Cortez and two freshmen in White, the second baseman, and third baseman Maddie Logsdon. Another junior, Sydney Ward, patrolled left field as the club’s flex player.
White, a slap-hitting left-hander, kickstarted a two-run rally for M-S against Highland with a leadoff single in the third inning. Logsdon drove in a pair of runs with a sixth-inning single. Granadino spent all seven innings catching Yergler’s pitches and directing the defense from behind home plate.
“At the beginning of the season, the top of the lineup was our big depend-on-it,” Akers said. “We put some freshmen in, and we’ve changed the lineup a little bit. It’s been great because now we’re seeing more people produce, and honestly, it’s been more of a team now than just five or six of us doing what we can.”
The Bulldogs also appear quite at ease in the high-pressure postseason environment.
Fans can catch them dancing before games start. The athletes will crack a smile or let out a laugh in the middle of an at-bat on offense or after a foul ball on defense.
Heinold embraces the players having fun while also not allowing them to shy away from the importance of their ongoing success.
“I told them earlier ... that they’re playing for everybody before them,” Heinold said. “They’re playing for everybody now, and they’re playing for everybody that’s coming through the program in the future.
“There’s a lot on their shoulders, but they’re taking that and running with it right now. I’m excited with how they’re playing.”