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Johnson: Coal City softball looks to continue string of success

SENECA – Was Coal City’s Interstate Eight Conference softball sweep of Seneca – by a combined score of 14-0 – an indication that the participants are headed in different directions?

Predictably, Coal City coach Stephanie Harmon would like to think so, and Seneca coach Dan Stecken would like to think it’s a temporary setback.

I’ll start with the Irish, who seemed to be rolling when they routed Serena, 11-1, April 23, improving to 12-6 overall. That outburst gave them 26 runs scored in the span of two games.

The results since haven’t been pretty. Seneca lost, 4-1, to Gardner-South Wilmington on April 24 and 7-6 by Dwight on Friday before managing three hits, all singles, in two games against the Coalers.

“We are just in a funk right now. The last probably three or four games, they’re just not hitting,” Stecken said after Tuesday’s 10-0 loss to Coal City. “We haven’t had a leadoff hitter get on in an inning in a while. Usually one of us starts hitting, the rest of us start hitting. It’s this game. There’s always ups and downs, and we just got to keep plugging and get better.”

If Stecken needed an example of a team that had hit an apparent bottom and pulled itself back up, he needed only to point across the field Tuesday. Four days earlier, Coal City had dropped to 6-10 overall with a 13-0 loss to Manteno.

Should Coal City go on to have late-season success, the Seneca series likely will be recalled as a turning point. The truth is, the proverbial worm might have turned a few days before the series began, when the Coalers held a Saturday practice in the wake of the Manteno debacle.

“We kind of did practice a little bit differently,” Harmon said. “The intensity was much, much higher. We did a lot of diving practices and communication drills, which really really helped, and I think that kind of brought it out, because we haven’t been able to get many practices in. I told them, ‘It’s all or nothing, like, we should leave here sweaty, dirty,’ and that’s what they did.”

Emily Aichele, the Coalers’ junior pitcher, said the practice “boosted everyone up and helped us with our positivity.” She pitched a no-hitter against Seneca in the series opener Monday and said that, going in, she thought the Irish would be a difficult opponent to overcome.

“I was expecting them to be a really good competition against us,” Aichele said, “But we just have been hitting well lately and hitting together, and scoring our runs when we needed to score them, and our defense has [done] really well, too, with minimum errors.”

That the Coalers have played like a new team coincides with them conducting themselves differently, left fielder Mady Bunton said.

“I feel like [Saturday’s practice] just changed our approach coming out to the field,” Bunton said. “We’ve been playing more as a team, talking more, warming up differently. I feel like this will lead to more success in the future.”

A lopsided series sweep against any opponent would have been welcome for the Coalers. That it came against Seneca, which is both a rival and a program that has won consistently over the past few seasons, made it potentially even more impactful.

“When we have Seneca on the [schedule], we know they’re going to come out hard,” Harmon said. “I think winning these two is huge for us, and finally everything’s clicking and everything’s working, and I think from here on out you’ll definitely see a different team.”

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