One week ago, Minooka became the second softball team and the fifth area team overall to win an IHSA state championship during my Morris Daily Herald tenure.
That the Indians were the least likely of the state champions isn’t debatable.
The four prior state champs I helped cover — Morris football in 2005, Seneca boys basketball in 2005-06, Minooka wrestling in 2009-10 and Coal City softball in 2010 — lost a total of one game. They went a combined 115-1. Even after going 7-0 in the 4A softball playoffs this spring, Minooka had a relatively underwhelming 23-8 record.
In early May, I wrote a column about Minooka Community High School’s chances in its upcoming state series. In one sense, I was prophetic. I wrote “The postseason begins Thursday. Don’t expect it to end for Minooka very soon.” Short of weather postponing state final action, the postseason couldn’t have lasted any longer for MCHS. But I essentially ranked the MCHS teams in order of what I deemed their likelihood of playoff success to be. Softball was listed fifth, behind boys volleyball, boys and girls track and field, and baseball.
I wasn’t the only one who overlooked the Indians. They were seeded ninth in their sectional. You could argue that they were the favorite going into only one of their playoff games — their regional opener against Joliet West.
“We’re pretty much just the underdogs. That’s what I would call us,” Minooka infielder Rachel May said following an 8-0 blowout of Normal West at the Illinois State University Super-Sectional by the Indians. “People keep underestimating us, and now we’re going to state.”
The thing I wonder now is — should the Indians have been overlooked? I’m not saying they were as likely a state champion as, say, the 2010 Lady Coalers were when they started battle against an overmatched 2A field. But the Indians have seven seniors who had committed to play college softball prior to the start of the season, a total few if any teams can match. They obviously have talent.
Minooka struggled some during the regular season, but if ever there was a season where high variance and inconsistency should have been expected, wouldn’t have this been it? The weather was so poor and there were so many postponements early this spring that what teams did during the regular season should be taken with a grain of salt, much moreso than usual.
Look around the area, and you’ll see that almost every team had some element of surprise in its softball postseason run. Morris endured by far the roughest year of any local team, only to defeat Pontiac and nearly upset top-seeded La Salle-Peru at the 3A Streator Regional. Coal City had an awful draw at the 3A Manteno Regional, but it took state-ranked and heavily-favored Peotone to a ninth inning before bowling out in the semifinals.
On the other side of the coin, Seneca was the favorite coming off a 24-win season against Wilmington at the 2A Beecher Regional but was knocked out in its playoff opener. The variance continued in Beecher, as Wilmington went on to knock off the top-seeded host Ladycats for an unexpected title.
The only local team that probably did exactly what it was “supposed” to do in the softball playoffs was Gardner-South Wilmington, which beat beatable teams at its own 1A regional and the Iroquois West Sectional and lost to an arguably better Illini Bluffs team in the super-sectional round. Then again, it’s probably unfair to say a team is “supposed” to win a sectional when it has never done so before.
All of this is to say that it was probably a combination of the weather, randomness and bad luck that kept the Indians from showing their true colors during the regular season. It’s not to say randomness and good luck won them the state title (though there was certainly some flukiness in play in their 15-14 sectional win over Lockport). They won their final three games, against 4A Elite Eight qualifiers, by a combined margin of 28-6. Their state title may be surprising, but it’s certainly deserved.