This Team Time Out is sponsored by Kelso Heating and Cooling.
The season opener is less than a week away for the St. Joseph-Ogden High School softball team. Barring any bad weather changing those plans, of course. First-year coach Larry Sparks has replaced Randy Wolken in the dugout after Wolken retied last June after 39 seasons in charge of the Spartans. But that doesn’t mean expectations have dimmed for SJO, which has won four straight sectional titles. Here are five games to keep an eye on this season:
at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, 4:30 p.m.
The season opener is always one of eager anticipation. More so this year for the Spartans considering they’ll hit the road and face one of the state’s top pitchers in the Falcons’ Madi Eberle. The Southern Illinois Carbondale recruit compiled an area-best 302 strikeouts last season, giving SJO’s top hitters, like Alabama commit Bailey Dowling and Ball State commit Hannah Dukeman, good competition to open the season with.
vs. Maroa-Forsyth, 4:30 p.m.
The last win of the 2018 season for SJO happened against the Trojans. The two teams squared off in the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Sectional championship game last season, with the Spartans earning a 6-2 win. No doubt Maroa-Forsyth’s returning players will want to exact a bit of revenge against SJO, while the Spartans will want to show last season’s win wasn’t a fluke. It’s a good nonconference test two weeks into the season that could pay dividends once the postseason arrives.
vs. Unity, 4:30 p.m.
The senior classes of the Illini Prairie Conference rivals should be well-acquainted with one another. SJO and Unity have met in the postseason two of the last three years, with playoff hardware on the line both times. The Spartans defeated the Rockets 14-4 to win a Class 2A regional title last season and in 2016, SJO rallied for a 5-3 win in a 2A sectional championship game. The two teams could meet once again in the postseason, making the only regular season game between the Rockets and Spartans even more intriguing.
vs. Mt. Zion, 4:30 p.m.
Playing their best softball of the season in late May is always the ultimate goal for SJO. Playing a team like Mt. Zion at the midway point of the regular season should serve as good prep for the playoffs. Mt. Zion placed fourth in state last season in Class 3A, led by Illinois State signee Dayna Kennedy. Kennedy returns and should give the Spartans’ pitchers a tough challenge at the plate.
vs. Tuscola, 4:30 p.m.
By this juncture in the season, with the start of the Class 2A postseason a week away, both teams will have their sights set on advancing well into May. But this nonconference game in St. Joseph should provide plenty of entertainment and highlights between two of the more complete small-school programs in the area. While SJO’s streak of four consecutive sectional titles and 10 straight regional titles is unmatched in the area, the Warriors are no stranger to postseason success. This decade, Tuscola has won six regional titles and two sectional championships.