Eagles look to build on 22-win season with sophomore core

RANTOUL — Heading into last season, Travis Flesner never would have imagined how successful of a year it would be.

It was understandable for Rantoul’s softball coach to feel that way, as the roster was riddled with talent, yes, but also several question marks. And when Flesner made the decision to plug five freshmen into the starting lineup early in the season, he wasn’t completely sure how the move would pan out.

He was pleasantly surprised at the results — a 22-11 record with a second-place finish at the Rantoul Tournament and a regional championship berth.

“I think last year we definitely played beyond our expectations from the first day of practice,” Flesner said. “It’s not common for us to have multiple freshmen start varsity the bulk of the season. That wasn’t something we counted on going in. Going in, I thought one or two freshmen might get some cracks at some varsity time. But when we were going strong in the middle of the season, all five were starting.

“You never want to say you’re surprised to win 20 games because you want to go in with that expectation, but with our record the year before and the players we were bringing back, our expectations were looking at more like a 15-win season, but if we could get to 20 it’d be a successful season. Especially with the injuries we suffered at the end of the season, I think getting to 22 was really big.”

Those five freshmen (Jenna Sanford, Kristen Fauser, Madisyn Walton, Lexi Sherrick and Lexi Turner, who moved to Johnston City) and their development was one of the biggest reasons for the Eagles’ high level of consistent play in 2017.

‘Earn it’

With the four returning as more experienced and seasoned sophomores, Flesner expected it to be an even more mature group. And one that will take control and be more vocal.

Flesner said he saw too much tip-toeing around from the younger girls when they would take a senior’s spot in the field or the lineup. But heading into this spring, things are a bit different.

“Our whole mentality is ‘Earn it. Earn the position. Earn your right to be in the lineup.’ I talk about that on a daily basis,” Flesner said. “You have to earn everything you get whether it’s in softball or in life or school. Nobody’s going to give you a handout simply because you’ve been in the program for four years. You’ve got to earn it, and I’ve got my entire group of girls working and not slacking and earning where they’re at.

“I think this group’s going to have a completely different complexion even though we have a majority of the core back. There’s a higher level of confidence in the younger girls and from sophomores to seniors as far as being vocal. Last year, I’m not so sure they had that confidence to speak up when they thought things should change or thought we should work harder. But I feel like this group is more confident and comfortable to call each other out, pick each other up and motivate each other. Overall, communication is much better.”

When Rantoul’s season concluded with the regional title game loss to Chatham Glenwood, Flesner said the squad was one of his favorite teams he’s ever had — that sentiment has not gone away.

“I’d have to admit that it was (one of the most fun teams I’ve coached),” Flesner said. “It was one of the easiest teams to coach in the fact that they were always striving to do better and always wanting to work hard. If we set up a drill at practice that took a little longer than anticipated, nobody would complain. All those truly involved with the program were excited and enthusiastic all the way through the end of regionals.”

Power in the circle

Along with the five stellar freshmen, the Eagles last year were buoyed by the power bat of Brianna Tatar and the versatile Mackenzie Taticek. But perhaps the most crucial piece to their puzzle was pitcher Lindsay Jordahl, one of the area’s top hurlers who returns for her senior season before heading to Spartanburg Methodist College to continue her career.

“Obviously, without Lindsay on the mound, our record probably would’ve been reversed,” Flesner said. “We probably would’ve been 11-22 just because she’s able to control the game enough to let the team put some runs on the board and win the game. But even as well as Lindsay pitched, (without) those five freshmen stepping their game up we wouldn’t have been able to produce nearly as many runs. We just didn’t have that potent offense behind them.”

Return of the Jada

One of the key storylines for the Eagles this year will be the return of Jada Mosley, who sat out all of last season with a torn ACL. The versatile athlete is able to play both shortstop and second base at a high level, and it pushes another fast player into the top of the lineup.

“The biggest impact is on the girls,” Flesner said of Mosley’s return. “They know how talented she is and how hard she works, and it gives our team another element we didn’t have last year. And it gives us another speedster in the lineup and another good bat. Last year, we had Jenna as our leadoff I think every single game. Between Jenna and Jada, they’re going to be battling it out because I believe they both want to be leadoff batters. Throughout the first 10-15 games, we’ll see how things fall into place and settle on a lineup about halfway through the year.”

Versatility

One of the strengths of the 2018 team, Flesner said, will be its versatility.

The Eagles will have their ace Jordahl in the circle most games, but Sherrick, Sanford and Walton are all reliable arms to hopefully cut down on Jordahl’s innings.

Jordahl can play second base when not pitching, Sherrick can play both shortstop and second base, and Elaine Barnett will get opportunities, most likely at first base after filling in admirably at the end of last season when Walton was out with a concussion.

At third base, there might be question marks just like last year, when it was a revolving door between Taticek, Tatar and Hailey Hunter.

Sanford may start at third early on, but with her defensive prowess in the outfield, she may revert back to her natural position in center field to form a solid one-two defensive tandem between her and Fauser in the outfield.

The Eagles began their season on Monday with a road trip to Westville. They hosted Maroa-Forsyth on Tuesday (results were not available at press time) before traveling to face Urbana today (Wednesday).

Contact Zack Carpenter at zcarpenter@rantoulpress.com and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.

Categories (3):Prep Sports, Softball, Sports

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