Returning six players from the 2017 Metro Suburban Blue softball championship team, Wheaton Academy anticipated another title run.
Fielding scant experience after those six, then losing its Nos. 1-2 pitchers to injury over consecutive months and down to nine healthy bodies on occasion, that didn't happen.
Still, over the long run this season may benefit the girls, and even Warriors coach Todd Starowitz, more than another conference title. Four girls from Wheaton Academy's International Student Program, initially offering little more than enthusiasm, have brought cultural exchange and a growth experience to all players, home and visitor.
"I think there's more to it than wins and losses," said Starowitz, hired Feb. 14 for a second term as Warriors coach. He led the team from 2009-11 then resigned while, ironically, he and his wife, Beth Bauer, adopted a child from China.
Eight-year-old Emma is in good company. Sophomore outfielder Sisley Luo and the sister duo of freshman designated player Catherine Yu and sophomore outfielder Crystal Liu hail from China. Junior utility player Navya Priestley comes from India with a background in cricket.
"I don't think Indians know what softball is," she said.
Thanks to her father wanting her to play a sport, and Priestley's enjoyment of "hitting things," at least Indian does know what softball is.
"It's just really fun, and my teammates, we've made good relationships with each other," Priestley said. "Usually I'm an introvert so I don't get to interact with people a lot. So softball's a good way to make me come out of my comfort zone and just talk to people and interact with people without it being awkward."
That could have been the operative word were it not for guidance provided by the veteran players. All have travel experience, such as Loyola-bound shortstop Madison Ebeling, a .550 hitter who helped her 16-Under and 18U Beverly Bandits teams to Premier Girls Fastpitch Nationals titles in 2016-2107.
"Literally, in our first practice she's playing with a girl who never had played softball before. That takes patience and humility and a whole lot of other things," Starowitz said.
"It's been challenging," Ebeling said. "I would say I definitely learned a lot about being a leader for these younger girls, and also just tried to be the best teammate I can be."
At first Luo, Priestley, Yu and Liu stayed to themselves. Over time they embraced and were embraced by their teammates, fostered by team discussions and personal anecdotes. Like the girl who back home had attended school daily from 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
"Which blew my mind, to be honest," Ebeling said.
Luo, Priestley and Liu brought a minimum of experience, at most five junior varsity games in 2017, Starowitz estimated. Yet by hard work, and necessity, through the first 16 games three of the four newcomers had played in all of them, another in 11.
"I think they've gotten so much better since they started playing, incredible improvement I never saw coming, honestly," Ebeling said. "They've improved so much in such a short time for girls who have never played softball before, and I think it's amazing."
High school softball moves fast, but there is time for levity. In the first at-bat of the first game she'd ever seen, much less played, Yu took a pitch to the right ear hole of her helmet.
"Does she actually know this doesn't happen all the time?" Starowitz wondered. The next day he turned Yu around to hit left-handed and, under the tutelage of freshman Leah Kodat, made her a slap hitter now batting .190. That doesn't sound like much but actually is astounding.
Once, Liu was in right field and Starowitz told her to back up pickoff throws to first base by a certain number of feet.
"Coach, do you think you can give that to me in meters?" she asked.
"There's funny stories every day," Priestley said.
Other than Wheaton Academy's 4-13 record after pitcher Courtney Kinnane's 2-hitter in Tuesday's 2-1 win over Plano -- a Twitter video shows Liu wildly celebrating Ebeling's run-scoring double -- this is a success story.
"There's been struggles that have come with it," Starowitz said, "but I think the girls have benefitted from the experience, too."
St. Francis senior Nico Rendina, the Spartans' 2017 football MVP and all-Chicago Catholic League North linebacker and fullback, has been selected by the Illinois Coaches Association to play in the 44th Illinois High School Shrine Game, June 16 at Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington.
Rendina is among four outside linebackers on the East squad, coached by Jason Fulton of Newton. There are no other DuPage County players though a couple West Aurora Blackhawks are rostered for the West. P.J. Fleck, Don Beebe and Mike Tomczak are among those to have played in the Shrine Game.
A culmination of five days of practices and activities, the game is a charitable event to benefit the 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children in North America. It also will provide Rendina a preview of the Tucci Stadium turf. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder will be playing for the Titans starting this fall.
Program of the year
In his 21st year as Naperville Central's sponsor for the J. Kyle Braid Experiential Education Foundation, Barry Baldwin has monitored a slew of programs executed by Redhawks student-athletes.
He and his fellow sponsors will soon add to their lists.
Girls and boys from five DuPage County high schools, nominated as sophomores by faculty, will participate in leadership-building activities in and around Monmouth College again this summer.
Formed within weeks after her football-playing son, Kyle, took his life as a result of anabolic steroids, Colleen Malany's mission with JKB is to provide teens with tools to develop problem-solving skills, make considered decisions and positively influence others around them. Once back in school over the next two years the "JKB kids" create programs that bring those lessons to life.
Some don't sound earthshaking but can be quite impactful, like the Naperville Central group that volunteered at District 203 "Welcoming Day."
Others are dramatic -- Redhawks junior Caroline Reedy raised more than $2,000 through wristband sales to aid victims of the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico. Or more than $16,000 donated to Ronald McDonald House, raised by gift card sales based on an idea by former JKB scholar and cancer survivor Justin Wegner, who contacted Naperville Central students then in the program to help the place that once helped him.
Chris Wilbur, Hinsdale Central's sponsor, said that on April 25 his entire leadership team, 25 strong from sophomores to seniors, taught the entire eighth-grade class at Clarendon Hills Middle School "interpersonal skills, icebreakers and ways to navigate high school successfully."
Those students must feel good someone has their back. People like this year's incoming JKB Scholars, as follows:
Naperville North: Eliana Acanfora, Miles Barry, Lindsey Jennings, Christian Romano, Nate Snedic, Annika Swanson, Sarah Rose Wittwer.
Naperville Central: Katlyn Allen, Maria Gabrielli, Patrick Julian, Brooke Lafferty, Jack Moccio, Isaac Noren, Spencer Roehll, Julie Ross, Siarrah Smith, Patrick Spisak, Neha Vinesh, Kayla Zimmer.
Neuqua Valley: Matt Appel, Mark Gronowski, Hanna Mestan, Julia Rushing.
Hinsdale Central: Maiwen Amegadjie, Mary Claire Arbor, Connor Bonino, Jon Galassi, Ammar Hussain, Rachel Thompson.
Downers Grove South: Allison Eberhard, Ethan Kelly, Bella Ann Oberg, Mitch O'Halloran, Madelhyn Puccillo, Ben Skibbe.
Two summer fundraisers will help defray the costs of sending these students to Monmouth. The first is an evening and silent auction at Mesón Sabika in Naperville on June 20; the second is an outing to see the White Sox host the St. Louis Cardinals on July 10. Visit jkbfoundation.org for details.
"We're willing to help anybody," Baldwin said of his students' efforts. "I'm just excited for the upcoming year."
Follow Dave on Twitter @doberhelman1