Simply mentioning the 2016 Class 4A state softball playoffs rekindles excitement for Lyons Township senior Alex Rich.
The day after the school prom, the senior-heavy, eighth-seeded Lions surprised defending state champion and No. 1-seed Marist 5-1 for the LT Regional title, their first regional crown since 2012.
“I think that was the highlight of last year and that will definitely be hard to beat,” Rich said. “That puts a lot of momentum into this year, knowing that we can go far. We have all these great players from the lower levels, and we can top last year.”
With many new faces, the Lions hope to surpass last year’s run to the sectional finals for the first time since 2008. They finished 15-14-1 and shared third in the West Suburban Conference Silver Division with York at 6-6.
Nikki Marinec is the new head coach and Jacqueline Vitale the new assistant.
“I’ve played under both of them. I love both of their coaching styles. I think they’re going to do great things,” Rich said.
After 24 seasons as head coach and previously an assistant, Dawn Schabacker stepped down following ankle reconstruction surgery that has limited her mobility.
Marinec was the LTHS freshman coach the past five seasons. A former LTHS softball standout, Vitale coached the junior varsity, last year’s Silver champions.
“I used to call (Schabacker) mom. She’s been really great to me and I’m so excited to live up to her expectations and the huge shoes she left for me to fill,” Marinec said.
“I’m with a whole new group of girls. There’s definitely some question marks. Each day is kind of a constant battle with girls trying to do their best and earn their spots.”
Fourth-year varsity pitcher Sapphire Munoz, Rich and seniors Lauren Engels and Morgan Petrosius are returning starters.
Teammates voted Rich as Most Valuable Player after hitting .296 with five runs batted in. Primarily an outfielder her first varsity season, she is among candidates at third base.
“She’s what every coach wants — athletic, extremely coachable,” Marinec said.
Munoz, who will play at Missouri-St. Louis, was 17-16 with a 2.20 earned run average and 109 strikeouts in 98 2/3 innings.
“It’s really different being the older one now,” Munoz said. “Over the years I think I’ve gotten the skills from the (older) girls to be more of a leader. That’s my job this year, and pitch as best as I can. My team will back me up definitely. Hopefully we get to state.”
Engels (.243, 2 HR, 15 RBI) moves from third base to catcher and Petrosius (.290) possibly from second base to shortstop after the respective graduations of Delanie Cruz and Riley Frisbie, LTHS’s 2016 all-conference players with corner infielder Marina Gonzalez.
Also back are seniors Frankie Mendez, Sarah Pavlik, Peyton Hammon and Alix Lamana, who will play at West Virginia Institute of Technology. Senior Angel Mendez, who will play at Aurora, rejoins the program after a one-year absence.
Newcomers are juniors Gabby Allen, Teagan Bozzi, Angelina D’Amico, Abby Jocke, Ali Ostrowski, Jess Pelletiere, Dana Reynolds, Riley Vires and Sydney Wallace and sophomore shortstop/outfielder Katelyn Malikowski.
“It’s been really inspiring to see upperclassmen step into leadership roles for the first time,” Marinec said. “Hopefully we can go as far as they went last year, maybe further.”