Brand new day: With key seniors gone, No. 8 Bunnies look to establish a different nucleus

FISHER — When Ken Ingold looks out to the diamond this season, things are going to look a little bit different for the Fisher softball coach.

Actually, they will look completely opposite from the last few years.

“We had the great state tournament run last year, and I had five seniors who were really, really dedicated to softball for four years. They were good kids,” Ingold said. “Well, now I look out there and I’m like, ‘Wow! They’re not there anymore.’”

For the last four years, Ingold penciled in essentially the entire infield without much hesitation.

Molly Fairfield at third base, Toree Stalter at shortstop, Emilee Schwing at second base and Megan McCoy on the mound as the ace pitcher.

Along with fellow senior Chandler Steiner, the group was one of the most successful in program history. Those five captured regional titles in each of the last four seasons, including last year’s magical run to the state tournament that ended in a fourth-place trophy —  made possible by the school’s first sectional and super-sectional championships.

But all good things must come to an end, and Ingold has a tough task on his hands in attempting to replace the lost production.

Of course, replacing that production is much, much easier said than done.

Schwing and Stalter were first-team members of the Illinois Coaches Association’s all-state team — the state’s highest honor for softball players.

Those two seniors and McCoy were also named News-Gazette all-area first-teamers, and Fairfield was a special mention honoree.

“I think that’s been the biggest adjustment,” Ingold said of not seeing those five faces on the field and in the dugout. “Just by example alone, those were great leaders — especially Toree and Emilee. They kind of set the pace for the team. They weren’t big talkers, but by example out on the field — their extra work — they were certainly leaders.

“Now can you replace Emilee Schwing, Toree Stalter, Molly Fairfield and Megan McCoy? Not really. But we don’t really have to replace them; we just have to get production out of the people we’re going to have out here.”

The players coming back for Fisher are no slouches.

Part of the reason for the Bunnies earning a preseason No. 8 ranking in the Class 1A ICA statewide poll is the return of Becca Clanton behind the plate, Brittney Enos at first base, Sydney Eichelberger on the mound — all three of whom earned honorable mention all-area recognition from the News-Gazette in 2016 — and Bailey Hadden in center field.

“I think with those four we’ve got a really good nucleus,” Ingold said. “And a lot of the other girls have logged (time) in other spots — outfield, pinch-hitting, pinch-running — so we’ve got a lot of experience. So my hopes are still high for this year without a doubt.”

Each of those core four players earned some praise from Ingold.

Just like in volleyball and basketball, Enos will be this team’s senior leader and has “made herself better at every sport she’s competed at.”

Clanton has plenty of pop in her bat and can hit the long ball — showcased in her first at-bat during a practice last Wednesday when she sent an opposite field fly ball over the right-center field fence. And she provides plenty of stability as the team’s starting backstop — Ingold believes she’s “one of the best defensive catchers, with one of the best arms, in the area.”

Eichelberger came on as a freshman in 2016 to be one of the club’s top arms and has shined in the preseason practices. The sophomore has “also shown that she can hit the ball pretty well.”

Hadden provides a good bunting and slap-hitting presence as a left-handed bat in the lineup, and she has “plenty of speed in the outfield” as the team’s returning starting center fielder.

Area power?

Fisher went through plenty of struggles in the early years of Ingold’s tenure.

From 2009-2012, the Bunnies went a combined 44-74, including a pair of nine-win seasons in 2011 and 2012.

But once Fairfield, McCoy, Schwing, Stalter and Steiner hit the halls of Fisher High School, things started to change.

Four straight winning seasons were capped off by regional championships in each year from 2013-2016:

— 2013: 15-10
— 2014: 20-13
— 2015: 24-10
— 2016: 29-8

That combined 88-41 record has established Fisher as one of the top programs in the area.

“I’m not going to say we’re an area power,” Ingold said, “but I’ve thought for the last several years that we’ve been a team to be reckoned with.”

The Bunnies have built that success on not making mental mistakes.

“The last few years, if you’re going to beat us, you’re going to have to play a good ball game,” Ingold said. “The things we’ve hung our hat on the last three or four years (is) we don’t beat ourselves. We’ve stayed out of making mistakes and stayed out of (allowing) big innings for the most part. I hope we can do that again. Some of it you’ve got to have a little luck. When you move along in a regional championship game on into a sectional and beyond, every team you play is a good team.

“Again you’ve got to just minimize mistakes, and I tell the girls all the time, if there’s an error, a walk or a strikeout we’ve got to move on. The next girl up has to pick the last girl up.”

Despite the loss of the five seniors, Ingold remains optimistic with high expectations.

“I don’t think this is a rebuilding year. This is just a spot where we’re going to miss those seniors, but I also think we’re going to take another step. That’s what I would like to do,” Ingold said. “We’ve talked about the taste of winning a sectional, winning a super sectional, playing in the state tournament (and) the great way the IHSA treats you when you’re there for those three days. That’s something we want to do again. But I haven’t talked about it a ton this time of year.”

Measuring stick

A team can look like world beaters and one of the best teams in the state during practice, but things obviously change once the game action heats up.

“We’ve looked pretty good so far,” Ingold said. “We’ll see what happens. You don’t really know until you play five or six games and then kind of see where you’re at.”

The Bunnies purposely make the schedule difficult in the early part of the season to help prep for a Heart of Illinois Conference season that features opponents like No. 14 Tremont, No. 15 Heyworth and No. 19 LeRoy.

“We’re going to be in a really, really competitive conference. The conference is definitely going to get us ready for the postseason,” Ingold said. “Eureka is going to have a fabulous team. Tri-Valley’s always good, Tremont’s always good, and Fieldcrest will have an outstanding team this year. Heyworth could have one of the best teams in the state. We’ll have to compete with them both in the conference and in a regional or sectional situation.”

The Bunnies’ first week of the season is essentially a road trip — at Hoopeston on Thursday, at Watseka on Friday and a doubleheader at Clinton on Saturday.

Later in the season, opponents such as Unity, Rantoul, Maroa-Forsyth, St. Joseph-Ogden, Tuscola (which Ingold said he has heard could be the best 2A team in the state this season) and Okaw Valley all await to test the Bunnies.

Three of those teams — SJ-O (No. 2), Maroa-Forsyth (12), Eureka (14), Tri-Valley (16) and Tuscola (17) — are in the ICA Top 20 2A preseason rankings. Including Heyworth and LeRoy in 1A, that makes eight teams in top 20 polls the Bunnies will face this year.

“I think all that is really going to help us compete,” he said. “Now we’re not going to win them all. So part of it’s going to be, if we do get knocked off and have a bad stretch, how do we bounce back? And I think we’ll be able to do that. I think the girls have been around long enough to know that we play a difficult schedule, and you’ve got to play good people to get better.”

“A lot of teams have good pitching, but how are they team speed-wise and defensively?” Ingold added. “That’s when you really know where you’re at is when you face some of those teams.”

Getting talkative

One of the things that was easily noticeable during practice is the team’s quiet demeanor.

At one point, Hadden was the only audible one and Ingold made a point of that.

“We’re really quiet, and we need to talk to each other more out in the field,” Ingold said. “Softball, especially, is a game of (communication). And I think it’s just experience. A lot of these girls have played travel ball, so they know the game.”

But with several of the girls having played outside of the spring season, that gives Ingold more to work with.

“That makes my job easier because they know the game and know what it takes to win in softball,” Ingold said. “They’ve been very successful in travel ball over the summer. I’m really blessed because of that because it makes my job easier.”

The Bunnies’ first two games of the year, against Urbana and St. Thomas More, have been canceled.

Weather pending, they will face Hoopeston Area on Thursday in the season opener.

Fast facts

Head coach

Ken Ingold

Coaching experience at Fisher
10th year (record since 2009: 132-115)

2016 record
29-8 (fourth-place finish at state)

Conference
Heart of Illinois

Class
1A

Regional titles under Ingold
4 (2016, 2015, 2014, 2013)

Key losses
Molly Fairfield, Megan McCoy, Emilee Schwing, Toree Stalter, Chandler Steiner

Key returnees
Becca Clanton, Sydney Eichelberger, Brittney Enos, Bailey Hadden

Roster
Senior: Brittney Enos
Juniors: Becca Clanton, Karissa Fredrickson, Bailey Hadden, Kylie Terven
Sophomores: Sydney Eichelberger, Taylor May, Shelbee Owens, Jayde Parks, Casey Wagner, Morgan Wagner
Freshmen: Ashlynn Carpenter, Sidney Hood, Allie Jacobs

Assistant coaches
Kevin Terven, Doug Enos

BUNNIES SCHEDULE

Date            Opponent        Location        Time

March 13        vs. Urbana (Canceled)    Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
March 15        @St. Thomas More (Canceled)    St. Thomas More H.S.    4:30 p.m.
March 16        @Hoopeston Area        Hoopeston Area H.S.    4:30 p.m.
March 17        @Watseka        Watseka H.S.        4:30 p.m.
March 18        @Clinton        Clinton H.S.        11:00 a.m.
March 20        vs. PBL            Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
March 22        vs. Oakwood        Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
March 23        @Rantoul        Rantoul H.S.        4:30 p.m.
March 27        @Danville        Carle Gruber Sports Complex (Tilton, Ill.)    4:30 p.m.
March 28        vs. Bismarck-Henning    Kellar Field        4:15 p.m.
March 29        vs. Armstrong-Potomac    Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
March 31        vs. Tuscola        Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
April 1        vs. Unity            Kellar Field        11:00 a.m.
April 3        @GCMS        GCMS H.S.        4:30 p.m.
April 5        vs. Blue Ridge        Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
April 7        vs. El Paso/Gridley        Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
April 8        vs. Maroa-Forsyth        Kellar Field        10:00 a.m.
April 10        @Monticello        Monticello H.S.        4:30 p.m.
April 12        @Tri-Valley        Tri-Valley H.S.        4:30 p.m.
April 13        vs. Villa Grove/Heritage    Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
April 14        @LeRoy            LeRoy H.S.        4:30 p.m.
April 17        vs. Lexington        Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
April 19        vs. Heyworth        Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
April 20        @Tri-Point        Tri-Point H.S.        4:30 p.m.
April 21        @Dee-Mack        Dee-Mack H.S.        4:30 p.m.
April 22        vs. Okaw Valley        Kellar Field        10:00 a.m.
April 22        vs. Iroquois West        Kellar Field        1:00 p.m.
April 24        vs. Eureka        Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
April 25        vs. Cerro Gordo        Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
April 27        vs. Fieldcrest        Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
April 29        @Argenta/Central A&M    Argenta H.S.        9:00 a.m.
May 1         @Tremont        Tremont H.S.        4:30 p.m.
May 3            vs. St. Joseph-Ogden    Kellar Field        4:30 p.m.
May 8            HOIC Tournament    Tri-Valley H.S.        TBA
May 15        IHSA Regionals        TBA            TBA

Email Zack Carpenter at zcarpenter@rantoulpress.com and on Twitter @ZCarp11.

Categories (3):Prep Sports, Softball, Sports

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