May 24, 2022 Local Stories in and Around St. Joseph, Illinois

It’s opening day for SJO softball

The expectations haven’t changed for the St. Joseph-Ogden High School softball team.


Even with a new coach for the 2019 season.


Larry Sparks replaces Randy Wolken, the state’s all-time winningest coach with 1,044 victories and the only coach the Spartans have ever had since the program started in 1980. Wolken retired shortly after the 2018 season ended.


But Sparks understands what he is getting into as the Spartans start the 2019 season on Monday with a 4:30 p.m. game versus Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley.


“I feel very lucky to be given the opportunity to head coach of such a storied program such as St. Joseph Ogden softball,” Sparks said. “I have a tremendous staff and a really great group of young ladies. Coach Wolken developed a culture that rivals no other program. Our girls live to wear the Spartan uniform.”


Junior shortstop Bailey Dowling leads the way for SJO. The Alabama commit is coming off a 2018 season that saw her bat .657 with 21 home runs and 68 RBI. But Dowling has help, too. Junior catcher Hannah Dukeman, a Ball State commit, is back after hitting .468 with 50 RBI a season ago.

Add in senior pitcher Ashtyn Cromwell (21 wins in 2018), senior second baseman Savannah Smith (.292 average in 2018) and senior outfielder Katie Poulter (.301 average, 18 stolen bases in 2018), and the Spartans’ cupboard is far from empty.

Fellow senior pitcher Hannah Lewis, junior pitcher Zoey Witruk, sophomore third baseman Kaylee Ward, sophomore outfielder/infielder Audry Short and first baseman/outfielder Lauren Trankina give SJO needed depth, too.


“The strengths of this team are experience in key positions such as pitcher, catcher, shortstop and in the outfield,” Sparks said. “I would love to see our younger starters gain confidence with experience they get with playing time.”


The Spartans are set to take part in tournaments in Rantoul (March 30), Mattoon (April 12), Clinton (April 20) and Galesburg (May 10-11) along with balancing a challenging nonconference schedule that includes quality teams like GCMS, Normal West (March 21), Maroa-Forsyth (April 1), Villa Grove (April 2), Mt. Zion (April 17) and Casey-Westfield (April 26), among others.


SJO begins play in the Illini Prairie Conference on April 4 at St. Thomas More before embarking upon eight more league games.


“Our schedule has to be one of the toughest in this area, if not the state,” Sparks said. “The Illini Prairie Conference is a really solid softball conference. Teams like Pontiac, Bloomington Central Catholic, Olympia, Unity and Monticello are all capable of winning games on any day at any venue.”


SJO won its fourth consecutive Class 2A sectional championship last season, but suffered a tough super-sectional loss to Williamsville last May in Athens. The loss ended SJO’s season one game short of the state tournament at the EastSide Centre in East Peoria, a venue the Spartans have visited three times already this decade. Sparks would love for his first team to wind up back there in late May.


“SJO softball is a culture that goes way beyond this season’s squad,” Sparks said. “It’s our job to continue the winning ways established by the 39 teams before us. Our girls work hard year-round preparing to be successful, and I’m grateful to be coaching a program that expects to be in East Peoria every year at the end of May.”

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