Despite playing one year of high school softball, Huntley's Reese Hunkins had an impressive list of college suitors.
And for good reason.
As a freshman, Hunkins started and shined at second base for the Red Raiders, who finished 35-7 and won the Class 4A state championship. Hunkins came through with big hits throughout the season, including a walk-off hit in Huntley's 4-3 win over McHenry, which gave the Raiders their first sectional title.
The Raiders were unable to defend their state championship last season because of COVID-19, wiping out Hunkins' sophomore year and careers of five seniors on Huntley's varsity roster. The Raiders were trying to become the first softball team in the state to win back-to-back 4A titles.
Hunkins was still able to play in out-of-state tournaments throughout the pandemic with her club team, Illinois Chill, getting extra exposure while the high school season was canceled.
Kentucky, Wisconsin and Alabama were some of the first schools to call and show interest on Sept. 1, but Hunkins was not sure of her college future until after a virtual visit with Illinois last month.
Hunkins was offered a scholarship from Illinois softball coach Tyra Perry at the end of the virtual tour, and the Raiders rising junior accepted the next day, announcing her decision via Twitter on Oct. 24 and fulfilling a childhood dream.
"I was so excited. I had a big smile on my face," Hunkins said. "I wanted to take it right there and then because of how exciting it was. It means a lot to me. It's been my dream since I was little. When I started the Chill program, I knew I had a really good chance to go big time. They really prepared me. I've always wanted to play (Division I softball). Being able to achieve that goal is amazing."
Hunkins said the Illini, which went 33-25 last year and made an NCAA regional appearance before the pandemic stopped the season, checked all of the boxes for the perfect college fit.
She also got an extra push from current Illini players, Gabi Robles and Katie Wingerter, who played on Illinois Chill. 2019 Hampshire graduate Delaney Rummell is a sophomore on the Illini, while ex-Raiders infielder Paige Berkmeyer, who also played on Illinois Chill and moved to Ohio after her freshman year at Huntley, signed her National Letter of Intent with the Illini Wednesday.
Those personal connections, coaching staff and close proximity to home made Illinois a great fit.
"I love the coaches and the coaching staff," Hunkins said. "They're similar to the coaches I have now, so I know I'll work really well with them. I know a lot of the players that play there, and they all said that they love it."
Hunkins said she can't wait to compete against the top players in the country, as well as the opportunity to see new places.
"I’m just excited to prove to myself that I can play at the next level," Hunkins said. "I'll get the chance to travel to many different colleges and many other places around the world, as well."
Hunkins' focus now turns to the upcoming high school season, which is scheduled to start April 19, according to the latest IHSA guidelines.
Last year, Huntley was set to return one of the state's top pitchers in Briana Bower, who went 27-5 with a 1.12 ERA and 0.73 WHIP and 353 strikeouts and 30 walks in 212 1/3 innings. She'll be back for her senior season before going to Mississippi State. Hunkins, meanwhile, hit .412 as a freshman with 27 RBIs, 28 runs, 10 doubles and three triples and has two high school seasons left.
Hunkins said that she doesn't want this year's seniors to go through what last year's seniors did. Not having a season last year, and the chance at repeating as state champions, was a big blow to all of the Raiders.
"I knew last year we were going to have a really good team," Hunkins said. "The seniors were a big part of our team. We were all super close. We wanted to make history and win back-to-back state championships. I thought we could have done it. I’m hoping we can play and get another chance."