It’s not often you get the opportunity to be the foundation for change in a high school athletic program.
But the only three seniors on Evanston’s softball roster — first baseman Emma Maxwell, second baseman Cate Rudy and outfielder Jessica Garcia — have already delivered contributions off the field before the 2015 season even gets underway with the season opener Thursday at home against Northside College Prep.
Now they’re poised to deliver on the field as the Wildkits try to improve on their 7-23 won-loss record last year, coach Luella Gesky’s first season at the helm.
Like other coaches before her in the program, Gesky knows you can never have too many leaders in a given season. That’s where it starts for the Kits, with leadership to guide a still-young varsity team that features four juniors and six sophomores.
“Those seniors are all strong and skilled when it comes to their leadership, and the younger kids really look up to them,” Gesky said. “I call them the foundation for change for us because of the response they’ve elicited from players in the community, too. Emma and Cate and (junior) Maddie Managlia all coached the 12-and-under (age group) team this summer and they worked three clinics we had for 2nd through 6th graders, too.
“They helped run the open workouts in the off-season and nobody buys into a program without seeing leadership like that. They have the desire to help our program grow and be better, even after they’re gone (graduated). Maddie and (junior) Gina Hopf are also stepping in as leaders.
“The one who’s really stepped up is Cate Rudy. She’s made a huge difference for us so far. She didn’t show us much as a leader last year, maybe because she’s not super outgoing, but she’s shown everyone how it’s supposed to look when we give out ribbons for our four pillars in the program.”
Fundamentals for Gesky go beyond the running, hitting and throwing involved in the sport. Those four pillars include Team Comes First; Play And Live With Discipline; Choose Your Attitude; and Maximize Your Effort.
Those are the pillars Gesky hopes to build as a foundation for the Wildkits to become contenders in the Central Suburban League South division after going winless against league opponents last year.
“We have a very specific goal. It might not seem too lofty, but we want to finish 3rd in the conference,” the coach pointed out. “We know New Trier and Maine South will be strong again, but we didn’t beat the teams we could have — or should have — beaten last year. We need to have the discipline to do the little things it takes to win those games and get some conference wins.”
Maxwell, the only Kit player named to the all-conference team last year, brings back middle of the order power on offense and Gold Glove-type defense at first. Rudy and Hopf will try to bring improved offense and defense — respectively — as returning starters at second and third, respectively, and Managlia will move back to shortstop after handling the catching duties last spring.
Managlia’s return to the middle infield was made possible partly by the emergence of sophomore Megan Chambers at catcher. “We’re really excited about what Megan can bring us,” Gesky noted. “She has great pop as a hitter, and a gem of an arm. I’m looking for her to really grow into the position back there.
“Maddie’s best possible position is probably in the outfield, but we need her at short. Right now we’re short of middle infielders and outfielders. The outfield is really my main area of concern going into the season. Hopefully things will tighten up there by mid-season.”
The graduation of center fielder Allie Nortz leaves a void, and Garcia, juniors Emma Rosinski and Olivia Kaminski, and sophomore Kendra Klamm will get first crack at starting along with pitchers Jaden Janzen and Darice Wheeler when they’re not on duty in the circle.
Expect another sophomore, Kate Parcell, to open the season as the team’s designated hitter.
Janzen has made strides after enduring some ups-and-downs as the freshman ace of a staff that struggled to adjust against older varsity hitters last spring. And Wheeler’s arrival as a transfer from Loyola Academy gives ETHS two legitimate No. 1 hurlers — maybe a program first.
At least the Wildkits won’t have to try to figure out a way to get Wheeler out this spring. Last year she smacked two home runs and a double in a 10-2 Rambler romp at ETHS and contributed two innings on the mound, too.
“Darice has the physicality and the athleticism to make a huge impact for us, if she buys into our system” said Gesky. “She wants to get better and has the desire to be a Division I (college) player. Hopefully we can help her reach that goal.
“Her stick is incredibly strong and she seems to be a disciplined hitter from watching her in batting practice. She has the potential to be our No. 1 pitcher just because she has a little more velocity than Jaden.”