Junior Katie O'Connell is the ace of the RBHS pitching staff. She's also emerged as a force offensively, with double-digit totals in RBIs and runs scored and a very high batting average. (David Pierini/Staff Photographer)

Katie O’Connell and her Riverside-Brookfield High School softball teammates struggled through an uncharacteristically tough season last year.

The Bulldogs went 11-21 and lost in the regional finals to Nazareth. They had won five straight regional titles and 10 in the past 11 years.

Naturally, O’Connell got an earful from her older sister, Kylie.

“She definitely rubbed that in my face,” O’Connell said. “I definitely felt the pressure after we had a down year last year. We want to get better.”

Kylie and Katie O’Connell played one year of softball together at RBHS in 2012 when Kylie was a senior and Katie a freshman. Kylie was a three-year starting pitcher who earned all-conference honors, while Katie was the No. 2 pitcher that year before succeeding her sister as the ace of the staff last spring.

Despite the good-natured ribbing, Kylie had some words of encouragement for her younger sis.

“She was telling me like, ‘don’t get down and have a more positive attitude,'” O’Connell said.

O’Connell took the advice to heart, determined to help the Bulldogs return to their winning ways. Her efforts are starting to pay off as RBHS is off to an 8-11 start, including a 2-1 record in the Metro Suburban Conference.

“Over the summer I played travel ball with the Bulls/Sox Academy,” O’Connell said. “We had more practice than in past years and I worked a lot harder.”

It shows. Though her statistics don’t bear it out because the Bulldogs have played a lot of high-scoring games, O’Connell has improved in myriad ways in the pitching circle. She has a 7.81 earned-run average but has struck out 40 batters in 53 innings.

 “Katie is definitely an asset,” first-year RBHS coach Doug Schultz said. “I think her velocity is up. I didn’t see her last year but she has very good velocity and she’s throwing a variety of pitches. As she works on her location and hitting her spots, that’s going to eliminate some of the big innings.”

O’Connell’s new-found power has boosted her confidence.

“Because I can throw more pitches I’ve gotten more strikeouts, which I’m not used to,” O’Connell said. “I used to rely on my defense and I still do, but it’s nice to know I can strike people out.”

O’Connell is proving to be a hard hitter to strike out. She did not strike out in the first 16 games this year, a span of 47 plate appearances.

That is important now that Schultz, who had O’Connell batting in the middle of the lineup, has moved her back to her natural No. 2 spot in the order. In a 16-11 win over conference foe Fenton (April 18), O’Connell went 5-for-5 at the plate with three singles, a double, a triple and five RBI’s.  Other hitting stars included junior Lana Herrmann and sophomore Kendall Hastings. Herrmann crushed a grand slam while Hastings went 4-for-4 with a single and three doubles to boost her average to .550.

For the season, O’Connell has already reached double-digit totals in both RBIs and runs scored while hitting for a very high average.

“I was kind of excited that I haven’t had a strikeout, but it’s going to happen,” O’Connell said. “I want to get a hit [every time] but when you’ve got a situation of needing to get runners over, that’s my goal is to make contact. When I’ve got two strikes on me and we need to move the runners over, I try to hit it to the right side.”

Schultz appreciates that effort.

“She’s definitely a contact hitter and she does the little things for our team like moving the runners up,” Schultz said.

O’Connell and fellow junior Lana Herrmann, who also are teammates on the volleyball team, were elected co-captains by the Bulldogs, who have only four returning varsity players.

“We have only three seniors on the team but I guess I was surprised [at being named captain],” O’Connell said. “I am happy with it. Sometimes I feel the pressure but that really makes me better.”

So, too, does the pressure to live up to the family name. Following in the footsteps of a talented older sibling isn’t always easy, but it doesn’t seem to bother O’Connell.

“I think she’s taking it as a positive and not pressure,” Schultz said. “I don’t see her pressing at the plate or putting pressure on herself. She’s definitely our laid-back, care-free spirit on the team.”

But O’Connell does care about results.

“We have new coaches this year,” O’Connell said. “They’ve been bringing new stuff to the table and I think this year there’s a different mentality on the team. I feel we’re more focused on the goal, that we know we have a lot of potential and we can do a lot better.

“[Last season] was such an off year for RB softball. We want to break that habit and prove ourselves.”

The Bulldogs host Ridgewood on Thursday (4:30 p.m.) at Veterans Park in North Riverside. The following week, RBHS visits Fenwick (4/28) at the Priory in River Forest and also travels to Elmwood Park (5/1) in a pair of tough games. Fenwick advanced to the Class 3A supersectionals last year and Elmwood Park routed RBHS 11-3 in a game earlier this season.