Prairie Ridge starting pitcher Hailey Baker remembers the details of every softball game she has played in.
For the four-year varsity starter of the two-time defending Fox Valley Conference Fox Division champions, that includes last season’s Class 4A McHenry Regional final against Crystal Lake Central, in which the fifth-seeded Tigers upset the No. 2-seeded Wolves, 4-2, to capture their first regional championship since 2002.
“In all honesty, we ended our season with a giant upset,” said Baker, who has been the Wolves’ No. 1 starting pitcher since she was a freshman after the graduation of Wisconsin’s Kirsten Stevens.
“That one really hurt; I’m not going to lie.” Baker said.
Prairie Ridge entered as the heavy favorite. The Wolves averaged more than eight runs a game and swept Central in two regular-season meetings by a combined score of 21-1. The Tigers had a sub-.500 record going into the playoffs, and Baker overwhelmed them previously, winning both regular-season starts and holding Central to one unearned run with 18 strikeouts in 12 innings.
The Wolves finished with a 26-5 record, but that season-ending loss to Central still stings.
“We’re all still kind of feeling the sting of losing to Central last year, at least I know I am, and some of the other seniors,” Baker said. “We’re really disappointed how last year ended, so I know this year we’re kind of taking on our football team’s message and mentality of ‘Unfinished business.’
“I think last year we looked too far into the future, and we kind of looked past Central. ... And it kind of got the best of us. Right now, we’re expecting a lot out of ourselves.”
Prairie Ridge hasn’t won a regional since 2012 (Class 3A), and Baker has been on the losing end of two straight regional finals. In 2015, it came against a loaded McHenry team, which included some of Baker’s Illinois Chill Gold club teammates. The Wolves were underdogs in that one, however.
The Wolves return a bulk of their offense and lost only two to graduation. Senior Kaleigh O’Brien is back after leading area players with 10 home runs, and Maddie Schillinger emerged as one of the toughest outs last year, hitting .525 with 47 runs scored and 40 steals.
Sophomore outfielder Emmie Farnam also returns to one of the area’s most talented group of underclassmen. And Baker had the lowest ERA (1.82) and WHIP (0.85) among area starters.
“We are returning a good core of kids, and their attitudes are very good,” 19th-year Wolves coach Mike Buck said. “There’s a lot of good, young kids out there, and every team has good, young talent and solid pitching. The talent balance is as good as I’ve seen in our conference.”
Prairie Ridge once again should be a strong contender again in the FVC, which now is a nine-team conference after the departure of the Grayslake and Woodstock schools. Their path won’t be easy.
Huntley, which handed Prairie Ridge one of its losses a year ago, is coming off the program’s first FVC Valley title and second straight regional title. The Red Raiders set a school record with 26 wins and are led by Division I University of Wisconsin-Green Bay commit Tiffany Giese, who led all area pitchers with a 25-7 record in 35 starts.
She posted a 2.34 ERA and struck out 197 batters in 2181/3 innings, and also hit .417 with 30 runs scored and 24 steals. Also returning is senior Rylie Porretto (Lewis University) to lead the offense after driving in an area-best 47 RBIs with six home runs and eight doubles.
Huntley, however, loses three senior starters in Jessica Shields (who set a school record with 67 steals), Hayley O’Mara (team-high 21 extra-base hits, eight homers and 40 RBIs) and Megan Baczewski.
“It’s all up in the air,” Giese said when asked who was the FVC favorite. “Everyone has to come play their game and just see what happens. It’s a lot different with the huge conference. You’re not going to get easy wins.
“We lost a lot of senior leaders, so that’s big. I definitely have to step up as a leader. I feel like I have more eyes watching me this year.”
Huntley coach Mark Petryniec said the Raiders have a nice balance on offense this season and can play multiple styles, if needed. He’s calling the FVC “the new SEC of the north” with a lot of talented players returning throughout the conference.
The Raiders have one of the deepest teams in the FVC, with Autumn Kasal (.346), Sofia Tenuta (.343, 14 extra-base hits), Taylor Pacana and Caitlin Brown (NAIA Viterbo) all back after playing 30-plus games last year.
Huntley has its sights set on trying to become the first in program history to win a sectional title.
“We have some new faces, but we’re pretty deep,” Petryniec said. “We have some really nice internal battles going for starting positions right now. Nobody is going to replace the 60 stolen bases at the top of the order.
“It’s looking like we have a nice approach of speed and power. If we want to, we have four slap hitters we can put in the lineup; or if we want to go big, we’re going to be able to play big, too.”
In the Kishwaukee River Conference, Marengo – No. 4 in the Illinois Coaches Association preseason poll – will be hard to beat. The Indians bring a 50-game conference winning streak from the Big Northern Conference East Division.
Marengo has won three straight conference titles and 10 consecutive regionals, and gets back Mariah Dionne, a 3A ICA first-team selection last year. Dionne went 20-7 with a 2.45 ERA and 208 strikeouts in 166 innings as a junior, hitting .483 with 19 doubles, eight home runs and 46 RBIs.
The Indians return eight of nine starters.
Senior Leah Secor solidifies Marengo’s infield and made only two errors at shortstop. She hit .424 with with 50 hits and 50 runs scored and didn’t strike out all season.
Richmond-Burton, Woodstock North and Burlington Central are the biggest challengers to the Indians in the seven-team conference, and Johnsburg also showed big improvement late last season before falling to Hampshire, 4-1, in the Class 3A Hampshire Regional final.
In the East Suburban Catholic Conference, Marian Central is looking to improve in one of the toughest conferences in the state. The Hurricanes’ offense looks strong with Emily Miller (.542 batting average, 18 extra-base hits), Jackie Chmiel and Maggie Finnegan all returning.