MARENGO – Marengo junior Mariah Dionne launched consecutive batting practice pitches from coach Dwain Nance high over the left-field fence and onto the neighboring field behind Marengo High School.
Her tape-measure shots scattered unsuspecting players on the junior varsity softball field and brought loud cheers and hollers from teammates, who turned around at the crack of the bat as practice wound down on Friday.
Dionne, the 2015 Northwest Herald Softball Player of the Year, and the Indians begin their journey to defend the Big Northern Conference East Division this week. They started with a 9-4 nonconference win over Harlem on Monday.
Marengo reached the Class 3A state tournament last season in East Peoria – the Indians’ third trip to state in five years – and lost to Washington, 2-1, in the championship. They took second for the second time in four years after winning the school's first title in 2011, and finished with a 35-7 record (second most wins in program history).
The Indians return six starters, including Dionne, who became Marengo's first sophomore named to the Illinois Coaches Association Class 3A All-State first team. She announced her commitment to Southeastern University (Lakeland, Florida) after practice on Twitter.
“I think we return a lot of strong players, and we brought in a lot of good underclass talent,” said third baseman Allison Jasinski, who hit .338 with 13 doubles and 30 RBIs as a junior. “We’re working hard to work them into the lineup, and show what they can do and prove themselves in practice. We have a lot of good pieces, and they’re really starting to work together."
Jasinski, center fielder Aubrey Wzientek and left fielder Amber Proberts are the returning seniors, along with junior shortstop Leah Secor (.356, 17 RBIs, five doubles) and sophomore second baseman Anna Walsweer.
Marengo will miss top hitter Veronica Ruelius (Illinois), who led all area players with a school-record 17 home runs, 63 runs scored and 65 RBIs, along with first baseman Rebecca Schultz (eight home runs, 49 RBIs) and catcher Jessica Turner. Replacing all of that offense won’t be possible, Nance said, which will likely lead to more closely contested games.
"That group of seniors last year were pretty dedicated and there was a large group of them," said Nance, who is 276-79-1 in nine seasons at Marengo. "They were very talented. I think we have a pretty talented team this year. We just have to continue getting better every day. That's going to be the mantra. We have to continue to get better every day, our one percent. Whether it's practice or in games, we have to learn from our mistakes."
Ruelius and Schultz accounted for more than half of the team’s 44 home runs, while Dionne (.455, 49 RBIs) added 12 homers and 10 doubles.
Jasinski said she has worked in the offseason to get stronger and provide more pop, but knows the offense won’t be the same one that outslugged so many teams during the regular season.
Walsweer has worked on her core strength training with the football team, Nance said, hoping to create a quicker and more powerful bat. Junior Megan Anthony will start the season at first base, sophomore Riley Connell will pitch and play in the outfield, sophomore Susie Nawrot will play outfield, third and pitch after gaining varsity experience last year and freshman Hannah Ritter will take over catching duties.
The last time Marengo started a freshman catcher (Rock Valley College's Taylor Carlson), the Indians won a state championship.
The Indians have six pitchers on the roster, but Dionne – who was 26-4 with a 1.82 ERA and 266 strikeouts in 192 innings and was named the BNC East Pitcher of the Year in back-to-back years – is the key to another deep postseason run for Marengo.
Dionne underwent ACL surgery July 31 after colliding with her catcher on her travel team, the Bartlett Silverhawks, in a tournament at Plainfield Central in June. She was cleared to play in January and her first time pitching on dirt was Feb. 29, Marengo's first day of practice.
Dionne said she feels stronger than before, but Nance said he'll ease her back to get her stamina up. Marengo plays some triple-headers early in the year as well as tournaments that will have the Indians playing five games in two days.
"I just have to build my muscles and get stronger every day," Dionne said. "Just got to adapt, break my restrictions and feel comfortable with myself. I feel stronger than what I was before, and I feel like I just have to come through with my best."
As usual, Marengo plays a very tough nonconference schedule, including a game at UIC against Glenbard South, and a rematch of last year's Northwestern Supersectional against Wauconda at Chicago Bandits Stadium in Rosemont.
Back at practice, the Indians form a circle at home plate and Nance flashes batting signals. He asks players to dissect the signs. If they get it wrong, they must run around the field three times.
Two players get a sign wrong. Jasinski runs the final lap for one or her teammates.
"Our quote for today was 'You only feel pressure, when you’re not prepared,'" Jasinski said. "We prepare ourselves in practice to play big games and we play a tough schedule so we feel confident going into the postseason. We take every game at a time, but in the long run, our goal is to win a state championship. That's always the goal."