At the start of each year, Huntley softball coach Mark Petryniec challenges his players to do something no other Red Raiders team has done before.
After enduring a marathon stretch of 16 games in 19 days, going 15-1, this year's group of Red Raiders is one win away from leaving its mark. With wins over Joliet West and Lemont on Saturday, Huntley put itself in position to be the first team in program history to reach 30 victories.
The Raiders will get their shot to set the record with the Class 4A postseason starting this week. Huntley, the No. 1 seed in its sub-sectional, will face No. 8 Rockford Auburn or No. 9 Guilford at the Hononegah Regional semifinals Tuesday.
If they win, the Raiders then would meet the winner of No. 3 Hononegah and No. 5 DeKalb in the regional final. Huntley (29-5) has won three straight regional titles, but still is searching for its first sectional title.
"Each team and each season, we challenge the girls to try and leave their mark on the program history," Petryniec said. "The goal for this year was to try and set the win record. It took a little bit of work to get there, and now they have an opportunity to do that on Tuesday. This team is definitely set on trying to advance in the postseason further than any other Huntley group."
Huntley has a strong mix of upperclassmen and underclassmen leading the way.
Senior Tiffany Giese, the program's all-time winningest pitcher, is 21-2 in the circle and sets the table for a potent Huntley offense. Senior Autumn Kasal is a four-year varsity player and, along with junior Sofia Tenuta, has been a fixture in the middle of a lineup averaging 8.4 runs a game.
Junior Grace Kutz and sophomore Teagan O'Rilley also are among the team leaders in RBIs.
Freshman Briana Bower has relieved Giese all season to form an impressive 1-2 punch. On Saturday, Bower tossed seven scoreless innings of no-hit relief in a 6-5 win over Joliet West, striking out 14 and walking one.
Freshman Marley Reicher has game-changing speed and has settled in nicely after Giese atop the lineup. And freshman Paige Berkmeyer has helped solidify the Raiders' infield defense with highlight-reel plays at second base.
"Team chemistry is a huge deal, and this team has clicked from the start," Petryniec said. "We've had girls on varsity for three or four years, and that’s invaluable experience. They all keep talking to the younger girls and say, ‘Hey, let’s not take this opportunity for granted.' For our older girls, there is no tomorrow, so we need the younger girls to step up and realize, we’re playing for our seniors this postseason."
Also in Class 4A, a pair of Fox Valley Conference teams will square off in regional semifinals. Crystal Lake South (No. 3) will take on McHenry (No. 8) at the Grant Regional, and Jacobs (No. 4) will face Dundee-Crown (No. 5) at the Jacobs Regional.
Nobody in the area is pitching better than D-C senior Sydney Ruggles right now. The Loyola commit has not allowed an earned run over her past seven starts, throwing five shutouts and striking out 68 in 47 innings.
If the Chargers get past Jacobs, they likely would face top-seeded Barrington in the regional championship. Barrington has won 16 consecutive regionals and took third at state last year.
Hampshire is seeded fourth at the Harlem Regional and will face No. 6 Belvidere North in the semifinals. The Whip-Purs have won seven of 10 games going into the playoffs and are going for their second regional title in three years.
Class 3A: Marengo's Anna Walsweer and Susie Nawrot have been a part of 18 postseason games since the start of 2015. The Indians seniors have advanced to the state tournament twice, finishing second as freshmen and claiming the program's second state championship a year ago.
Along with senior pitcher Riley Connell (13-2) and returning juniors Hannah Ritter, Lauren Aubry and Grace Houghton, Marengo boasts plenty of postseason experience.
Coach Dwain Nance is hopeful that experience can carry the Indians on another long run as they enter the postseason with 11 straight regional titles, six sectional titles over the past 11 years, and four state final appearances since 2011.
"The experience we have up and down the lineup is the beauty of it," Nance said. "If you take everybody that's been around the last two or three seasons, that's a lot of meaningful games."
Marengo starts its state title defense Tuesday against the winner of No. 6 Marian Central and No. 8 St. Edward at the Class 3A Burlington Central Regional. The Indians (24-4) are the No. 1 seed in their sub-sectional.
Kishwaukee River Conference rivals Burlington Central (No. 4) and Woodstock North (No. 5) also loom as threats to end an Indians' regional title streak that has stretched past a decade.
Woodstock North's Ellie Thurow has struck out Marengo batters 26 times in two starts, which makes up more than 25 percent of the Indians' season total of 103 strikeouts over 28 games.
Marengo beat the Thunder twice and Burlington once this season in KRC play, but Nance is not taking any opponent lightly. Marian took Marengo to extra innings in last year's regional final before Ritter came through with a walk-off grand slam in the ninth.
"It’s definitely one of the more competitive regionals I've been a part of in my last 12 years at Marengo," said Nance, who is 364-98-1 since taking over in 2007. "I know that our kids have worked hard all year for this moment, but so has everybody else. It could be anyone's to win."
Also in Class 3A, Prairie Ridge, which dropped down from 4A this year, is going for its first regional title since 2012. And Richmond-Burton is trying for its second in a row after upsetting Lakes last year, giving the Rockets their first regional title since 2011.