May 21, 2024 Local Stories in and Around St. Joseph, Illinois

SJO softball vies for 11th straight regional title on Saturday

A year ago, the St. Joseph-Ogden High School softball team defeated Maroa-Forsyth to win a Class 2A sectional title.


On Saturday, the two programs will meet again, this time with a 2A regional title on the line.


Second-seeded SJO advanced to the regional title game — slated for an 11 a.m. first pitch — after defeating No. 6 Monticello 11-0 in five innings on Tuesday during a regional semifinal game.


Bailey Dowling, the state’s leader in career home runs, had a dazzling performance, going 4 for 4 with three home runs and six RBI in the win against Monticello. The Alabama commit now has 65 career home runs going into Saturday’s game against No. 3 Maroa-Forsyth (18-8).


Hannah Dukeman (1 for 3, two RBI, two runs scored) and Savannah Smith (two RBI) both contributed significantly at the plate for SJO. Kaylee Ward, Katie Poulter, Zoey Witruk and Jaycee Lewis also had a hit, with Lewis scoring three runs. Poulter added two stolen bases and Raegan Crippen added an RBI. That was more than enough offensive support for Witruk, who stifled Monticello and threw a one-hit shutout, striking out seven.


“Having players like Bailey and Hannah make a coach’s job easy,” said Larry Sparks, SJO’s first-year coach who earned his first postseason win with Tuesday’s triumph. “They are not only great hitters, but are great team leaders both on the field and in the dugout. When they speak, everyone around them listens. It is truly invaluable.”


So are the performances like the rest of SJO’s lineup on Tuesday, particularly when opposing teams opt to pitch carefully to Dowling and Dukeman.


“Kaylee and Savannah have provided insurance for us and have, for the most part, made teams pay for walking Dowling and Dukeman,” Sparks said. “Savannah has just been consistent day-in and day-out. Successful teams have got to have players like her to be successful.”


SJO owns a 9-0 win against Maroa-Forsyth when the two teams met on April 1 in St. Joseph. The Trojans advanced to Saturday’s game with a 3-0 win against Argenta-Oreana in Tuesday’s other regional semifinal game.
The early-season win by SJO against Maroa-Forsyth was one of 11 straight to start the season undefeated. The Spartans faced some adversity this season, losing four straight games in mid-April, but Sparks feels his team is hitting its stride.


“The main key was getting in some practices during all the rainouts and getting better at the areas that were costing us games,” Sparks said. “It’s hard to fix things on the fly when you’re playing five and six days a week. It was more mentally tacking on the returnees more than the newer younger players. It was just some stuff we had to play through, and it’s about getting better every day.”


More performances like the one Witruk threw against Monticello could help the Spartans go a long way as SJO tries to win its 11th straight regional title and 36th overall in program history on Saturday.


“Early on, our pitchers were all basically trying to work their way back into pitching shape after coming off injuries,” Sparks said. “As of late we’ve done a better job of attacking the strike zone and limiting our pitch counts to where they can throw more days a week. The postseason schedule plays better into where our pitching is right now playing two days a week versus five to six days.”


If SJO is able to defeat Maroa-Forsyth, the Spartans would advance to next week’s Olympia Sectional. SJO would face either Olympia or Prairie Central at 4:30 p.m. next Wednesday, two Illini Prairie Conference foes that SJO has beaten this season. The Spartans topped Prairie Central 13-3 in five innings at home on April 23 and won 7-2 at Olympia on May 7.


“Winning a regional at SJO is more of an expectation more than anything else, but I would say to win that and move on would take this season to the next level,” Sparks said. “Anything we get after that is a bonus. I know this: once regionals started, I wouldn’t want to look past us. We may not have the record of teams in the past, but we’re battle tested and have a lot of heart and character.”

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