For the Lyons Township High School softball team, a 5-1 sectional final loss in the Class 4A state playoffs to Marist once again trimmed the Lions’ postseason journey short of their expectations.
With this year’s loss to the RedHawks, it marks the second consecutive season the Lions have come up short in the sectional final round. Last season, Sandburg routed the Lions 10-0.
Overall, LTHS had a successful season. The Lions improved as the season went on and finished 20-10. Seeded sixth in the Hinsdale South Sectional, LTHS edged Mother McAuley 1-0 and Richards 3-0 to claim a regional championship.
The Lions added to their resume with those victories — winning back-to-back regional titles for the fourth time in program history.
Although the Lions finished with an impressive playoff run, the girls struggled to find their stride early on.
“Throughout the season we were figuring out who our team was and who would get the job done,” first-year LTHS varsity head coach Nikki Marinec said. “A lot of different girls were filling in, and we changed our lineup multiple times.”
After 24 seasons as head coach and previously an assistant, Dawn Schabacker stepped down prior to this season, following ankle reconstruction surgery that has limited her mobility.
Previously, Marinec was the LTHS freshman coach the past five seasons.
It was not until May when LTHS began to look like a legitimate playoff contender under Marinec’s guidance. After cruising through the first annual Illinois Softball Coaches Association Greg Easter tournament—with convincing wins over Barrington, Batavia and Zion-Benton—the Lions began to reveal their potency.
“Things just started to click,” Marinec said. “All of the girls began to figure out their roles for the season. After that, we just started to play really well.”
After winning the tournament, Marinec noted that the previous lineup changes became less common throughout the remainder of the season, highlighting the Lions’ newfound prosperity.
Opponents took notice of the Lions improvement as well.
“The first time we played them, we won 16-0 at their place,” said Oak Park and River Forest coach Mel Kolbusz. “In the rematch, we beat them 5-3 on our field. They really improved as the season wore on. They have some talented players and Nikki did a nice job coaching the team.”
The Lions continued their success down the stretch, as they were able to churn out wins from tough competition, including the aforementioned regional victory over Mother McAuley. LTHS Lions narrowly escaped with a 1-0 win in a pitchers’ duel.
LTHS pitcher Sapphire Munoz struck out 14 batters against Mother McAuley.
“That was our best game of the season,” Marinec said. “It was such an exciting game. It almost felt like we were downstate considering the intensity of the game.”
In the Lions’ sectional semifinal win over Richards, Munoz threw a two-hitter.
Offensively, senior catcher Lauren Engels led the team in almost every category, including batting average and on-base percentage. Engels flaunted a .365 batting average, .433 OBP, five home runs and 22 RBIs.
Early in the season, Engels gave the Lions the boost they needed to steal an extra-innings win at conference rival Hinsdale Central, where she launched a go-ahead home run to send the Lions home on an energetic note. LTHS won four in a row following Engels’ clutch homer.
“We rode her every single game,” Marinec said. “On and off the field, she’s an all-around great girl.
Considering their strong senior leadership, the Lions will lose some considerable assets, including Munoz (who will be playing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City), as well as Engels, Alex Rich, Morgan Petrosius and Sarah Pavlik.
“Sarah Pavlik represented what LT softball is all about,” Marinec said.
Several players led by returning seniors Gabby Allen (center fielder), Jessica Pelletiere (second baseman) and Teagan Bozzi (first baseman from Brookfield) should ensure the Lions maintain their winning ways under Marinec.
Angelina D’Amico, Abby Jocke, Ali Ostrowski, Dana Reynolds, Riley Vires, Sydney Wallace and Katelyn Malikowski (from Brookfield) also return next year.
With Allen coming back for her senior season, the Lions will attempt to utilize her speed and offensive power. This season, Allen finished with a .355 batting average and scored 21 runs.
Looking ahead, LTHS will once again look to exceed expectations. The ultimate goal is winning a Class 4A state championship
“We just have to take it one game at a time,” Marinec said. “The girls were really passionate about the playoff run and knew they were playing for something. We just have to continue that trend.”