Willis joins many new softball faces

Photo: Sophomore pitcher Delani Vest will be counted on for a repeat performance. File Photo
by Mike Slodki
MAPLE PARK—Despite finishing 27-9 in 2009, the Kaneland High School girls softball squad faces quite a number of challenges.

There’s recovering from the heartbreaking extra-inning regional championship loss to Burlington Central, the third straight year of getting eliminated by the Rockets.

There’s the acclimation of seven new faces to the varsity ranks, with just six upperclassmen on the team.

There’s also the item of new and eager head coach Brian Willis, who also served time as an assistant after former coach Dennis Hansen was suspended.

Willis says not much has changed in his coaching style from being a lower-level coach in various Kaneland sports.

“Right now, it’s all excitement and anticipation,” Willis said. “We’re trying to get the girls ready. I look at this as no different than the last eight years, except I talk to reporters now.”

Willis is ready for the season-ending loss to be put in the rearview mirror.

“From that regional championship loss, there’s only two girls starting (Wednesday) that started that game. In a sense, that anxiety is there for girls like Delani (Vest) because she was the pitcher, but we have several freshmen and sophomores that weren’t around,” Willis said.

Notably, Vest returns after posting a 17-6 record as a freshman inside the pitcher’s circle, which itself is being moved back.

“That’s going to make a difference, and we’ll get to see how Delani will react to that. With her leadership and competitiveness, she knows what it takes to get back to that championship game,” Willis said.

The jury is still out on Delani’s sister and battery mate Rilee, who is battling nagging injuries.

Junior catcher Andrea Dimmig-Potts returns as someone who saw her share of playing time and was capable of doing damage with one giant swing.

Seniors on the squad are outfielder Jordan Hester, and infielders Brittany Davis and Kristen Stralka.

“We’re moving forward. These returning girls are excited to get a fair shot, and they feel like it’s their time,” Willis said.

Joining Vest as fellow hurlers look to be sophomore Alexis Villarreal and sophomore Katy Dudzinski, who saw spot starts in the varsity ranks a year ago, and sophomore Brittney Miller.

“It’s a new coaching staff (Willis, Christine Bouffard and Joe Spittzeri), and we evaluated everyone equally at the start. Delani put herself in the top spot, and some of these other girls aren’t too far behind,” Willis said.

Sophomore McKinzie Mangers will serve as catcher in case the other two possibilities are beset by injuries.

“We’ll be tested early behind the plate,” Willis said.

The infield will look younger on the left side and senior-laden on the right. Allyson O’Herron, a freshman, looks to contribute at shortstop.

“(O’Herron) is very solid defensively and will make some freshman mistakes, but she’s also solid with the bat,” Willis said.

Fellow freshman Taylor Velazquez will get a look at third base.

Davis will be looked at around second base to serve as a cornerstone of the infield. Spots remain in a fight for outfield.

In terms of players who will see more sizable time this season and could surprise onlookers is Davis.

“She’s going to get out there every day and put up solid numbers and be a good player,” Willis said.

On the new arrivals, Willis pointed to O’Herron having a productive career at short for the next four years.

Other Lady Knights looking to contribute to the squad are sophomore infielder Sarah Kitz, sophomore outfielder Samantha Hansen and junior infielder Beth Smith.

“If we finish in the middle of the conference and continue to get better every week and regionals come around and we’re ready to roll, that’ll make me happy,” Willis said.

The regular season kicked off yesterday against BC, and WSC play begins on Tuesday, April 6, at Glenbard South. The regular season finale is Saturday, May 22, at Rosary.