High school softball: Defending 3A state champ Marengo starts season No. 1

Marengo’s run to winning last season’s Class 3A softball state championship was memorable, if not remarkable.

Four of seven postseason games for the Indians – who defeated East Peoria, 2-0, for the state title, Marengo’s second championship in program history – were decided by two runs or fewer.

No game was decided by more than four runs.

Twice, Hannah Ritter extended the Indians’ season on a walk-off hit – the first on a ninth-inning grand slam in a 5-1 win against Marian Central in the regional final, the second on a two-out base hit to score Susie Nawrot in a 1-0 win against Nazareth Academy in a state semifinal.

Against East Peoria, the Indians had only three hits, but they all were big, scoring both of their runs in the top of the sixth against Butler freshman Alyssa Graves, who was 30-0 entering the state championship game.

Now, the Indians – who finished 35-6 a year ago – are ready to do it all over again.

“It’s exciting,” Marengo second baseman Anna Walsweer said. “We know the hard work that has to be put in to achieve our goals, and we know that other teams will give us their best. Every day, we all just want to get our 1 percent better to achieve the goal of another state championship.”

Walsweer is one of three returning senior starters for the Indians, with Riley Connell and Nawrot, looking to lead Marengo on another long postseason run. The Indians have won 11 consecutive regional titles, six sectional titles in the past 11 years and played for the state title four times since 2011.

Nawrot said last year’s title run was incredible and that putting on a Marengo uniform is special.

“It means a lot,” Nawrot said. “Wearing that jersey every game and representing Marengo, it really does mean a lot. We’re all so disciplined and we always put in our work. It’s an honor.”

Expectations, as always, are high. Marengo enters the season as the
No. 1-ranked team in the Class 3A poll by the Illinois Softball Coaches Association.

The last time the Indians won a state title (2011), they won three more games and took second the following season.

“Expectations aren’t any different,” said coach Dwain Nance, who is 340-94-1 entering his 12th year at Marengo. “The pressure we’re going to feel is on ourselves. We’re used to getting other people’s best, so we’re just going to have to respond to that. The 2012 team had to deal with it, and this team will, too. I think we’ll be up to the challenge.”

Unlike the previous four seasons, the Indians will be without a familiar face in the circle, Mariah Dionne, a two-time Northwest Herald Softball Player of the Year. Dionne went 20-5 with a 2.39 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 214 strikeouts in 1581/3 innings last year. In the postseason, she was a perfect 7-0, tossing shutouts in both the state semifinals and final.

Dionne, now at McHenry County College, also was the team’s best hitter, blasting a program-record 17 home runs last season. She hit .461 and drove in 58 runs and ended her four-year career with 40 homers.

The Indians knocked out 44 home runs last year. Nance does not expect this team to have the same amount of power (25 of the Indians’ 44 home runs were lost to graduation), but Marengo still returns a formidable offense.

Walsweer hit .423 with 17 doubles, 36 runs scored and 23 RBIs, Ritter hit .454 with 15 doubles, 36 RBIs and 37 runs, and Nawrot hit .379 with 10 doubles, 26 RBIs and 42 runs. Aubry hit .300 with five homers and eight doubles, driving in 32 and scoring 30 runs.

Connell will fill in for Dionne as the No. 1 pitcher, but it’s a role she’s already familiar with after going 15-1 last year with a 2.06 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 79 strikeouts in 982/3 innings.

“This is Riley’s year; this is what she’s worked hard for,” Nance said. “She’s going to have to hit her spots, make the ball move and get batters out, and we’ll play good defense behind her.”

Connell, who also hit .425 with 28 runs, 27 RBIs, nine doubles and two homers last year, said she is going to embrace the No. 1 pitcher role, knowing she only has one year left at Marengo.

“We have these articles that we read, and one of them was to live in the moment,” Connell said. “That’s something that I’m definitely going to use and just focus on what I’m doing right now, not something in the past or not something in the future. We’re all very focused, and we’re all ready.”

Marengo also lost a four-year starter in shortstop Leah Secor; however, between Walsweer, Connell, Nawrot, Ritter and Aubry, the Indians are returning 13 combined seasons of varsity experience.

In all, the Indians lost six to graduation, including starters Megan Anthony (.403, 38 RBIs) and Rachael Jasinski.

Nance said now it’s time to turn the page.

“It’s going to be tough,” Nance said. “We’re going to miss those seniors, but we can’t talk about them because we don’t have them anymore. They were great players and they left a big legacy at Marengo. This group of seniors would like to do the same.”

The Indians won the Kishwaukee River Conference outright for the second year in a row last season. They now have won four straight conference titles outright, winning the Big Northern Conference East title the previous two seasons.

Nance expects the KRC to be tightly contested with Burlington Central, Richmond-Burton and Woodstock North as possible top contenders.

Nawrot is geared up for another long season.

“I think, right now, our goal and focus is on winning conference,” Nawrot said. “Long term, obviously, it’s about winning the state championship. But that should be everybody’s goal.”

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