Over her six years as one of Gary Eyler's assistant coaches, Hannah Baker got to take part in the building of a state-caliber softball program and Lincoln Trail Conference powerhouse at United.|
Now, after Eyler's decision to retire due to health concerns, Baker was handed the keys to the castle, becoming only the second head coach in the Red Storm's nine-season history and inheriting a team less than two years removed from winning the Class 1A state championship.
"It's pretty exciting, but I wish the weather was better," said the former Hannah Cooper, who like many of her coaching counterparts is waiting to play the 2013 season opener. In the case of the former Aledo prep and AlWood graduate, she is anxious to get the Red Storm back to the form it showed from 2008-11.
That was when a series of solid United teams built around pitching ace Katie Bertelsen brought home four consecutive 1A state trophies from East Peoria. After two straight title-game losses to Cobden and a third-place finish in 2010, the Red Storm finally struck gold in Bertelsen's senior season.
Last season, United turned in an 18-11 record and stayed in the thick of the LTC pennant race, eventually settling for second place behind first-time league champion Biggsville West Central. With a new year waiting in the wings, Baker is the lone holdover from the glory days.
"The entire staff is new," said Baker of assistants Lisa Gartelos and Kevin Tyrrell. "For me, it's totally different reality in going from the JV and working with all the different aspects of the game. But it's been fun; we have a lot of the same philosophies. We'll spend a lot of time talking and hashing out things. We all have a lot of energy, and we're passionate about this."
After last year's early exit in the regionals, United is looking to reclaim its place among the area's best as a solid core of veterans led by senior shortstop/pitcher Michelle Ravel -- one of the few remaining starters from 2011 -- is back to lead the way for the younger Red Storm players.
"The work ethic is very good," said Baker. "These girls have experienced it, and they know what to do."
Jackson ready to rejuvenate Ridgewood: After taking a year off to pursue her Masters degree in health education, Orion graduate Lyndsey Jackson is back in charge of the Ridgewood softball co-op, and is looking to give the program new life.
After slipping to 10-16 to cap Jackson's initial four-year stint with the AlWood/Cambridge partnership, the Spartans lost 27 of 29 games last spring with a young squad that did earn an LTC win and vital experience for this spring.
"Taking a year off and taking three classes really helped to open up my spring; I'm only taking one class this spring," said Jackson, the star catcher and one of the leading hitters for Orion's 2001 Class A fourth-place state squad. "I'm so excited to be back. I didn't realize just how much I'd miss it. Last year, it was just going to the games and being around the girls.
"This team is definitely ready to get out and start playing. When teams want to be around each other and have chemistry like this one does, that helps a lot, and this is a group that's been playing together for awhile now."
Returning seven letterwinners and breaking in a new pitcher in freshman Morgan Boone (who will split duties with junior Ashley Collins), Ridgewood is ready to return to the way it was during Jackson's initial tenure, when the program was one to not take too lightly in either LTC or postseason competition.
"They're definitely anxious to do a lot better," said Jackson. "I know I'm planning on improving our record quite a bit this year."