Posted Online: March 14, 2013, 6:42 pm

Following 2012's Final Four softball run, Sherrard ready to begin state-title pursuit

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By Terry Duckett,

After a pair of near-misses in the three seasons leading up to 2012, the Sherrard softball team finally achieved its state breakthrough last spring, playing in East Peoria for the first time since its state debut in Class A in 2002.

Now, new head coach Mike DeLoose is hoping to be a part of something even more special for the Tigers this season as they set their sights on returning to the EastSide Centre and trading up on the Class 2A fourth-place trophy they earned last year.

"It is exciting, but it's both exciting and a challenge at the same time," said the Sherrard alum, who returned to his alma mater after a stint on the Alleman softball coaching staff. "They did so well (in '12), and I want to continue that tradition and what they've been working on."

Losing nine seniors to graduation will make a second straight state journey tougher, but the two-time reigning West Central North champions do return two of their top hitters from last spring's 29-7 club in senior center fielder and lead-off hitter Alex Ward and junior shortstop and top slugger Riley Strandgard.

Also, Sherrard's top two pitchers — senior Ashlynn Hawotte and sophomore Rachel Winston — got plenty of time in the circle last spring and should team with sophomore newcomer Macy Hutchinson to keep the Tigers strong in that key department.

"The goal is for us to finish at state in East Peoria," DeLoose said. "That's what we're hoping for, and we've talked about it — how they finished at state last year and the things that happened that caused them to come up short in both games down there. We want to fix those things and go all the way."

Titans hope to build on hoops success: Nearly two years removed from winning its one and only piece of postseason hardware, the Annawan-Wethersfield softball co-op hopes the recent basketball success of its component schools will provide added inspiration.

With several members of Annawan's Class 1A state third-place girls' basketball team on the roster — including the junior battery of pitching ace Megan Foes and catcher Celina VanHyfte — the Titans are hoping that kind of success carries over onto the diamond as they look to cement their status as one of the area's top programs.

"I definitely think winning breeds winning," said A-W coach Jeremy Trill. "Success in other sports can only benefit us. They definitely want to get back to a high level, and falling short of our goal last year will fuel that a little bit."

However, moving from 1A up to 2A will make that challenge a little tougher for Annawan-Wethersfield.

"That's the only downside, I suppose," Trill said. "It'll be interesting to see how we do (in 2A)."

New faces: A pair of new faces — and a familiar one — will also mark the start of the 2013 prep softball campaign.

At United, AlWood graduate Hannah (Cooper) Baker succeeds state-title winning coach Gary Eyler, and former Sherrard coach Bob Phelps — who guided the Tigers to state last spring — takes the reins of the Erie-Prophetstown co-op.

Former Orion standout Lyndsey Jackson returns to the Ridgewood dugout after taking a year off, having coached the AlWood-Cambridge and Spartan programs from 2008-11.