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Weekend Chit-chat with Kaneland softball coach Brian Willis

Preseason practice for spring sports teams got underway this week. One of the spring teams with an especially heavy dose of preseason optimism is Kaneland softball, which returns six starters and also welcomes highly regarded pitcher Angie Morrow, a Burlington Central transfer.

In this week’s Weekend Chit-chat, Knights softball coach Brian Willis talks to Chronicle sports editor Jay Schwab about the effect the brutal winter could have on the start of the season, his approach to tryouts and the arrival of Morrow.

The following is an edited transcript:

What are the biggest things you look for in tryouts?

The biggest thing in tryouts is effort and willingness to want to be part of our program. We try to build more than just a softball team, we try to build a program, so we want kids who want to be part of a program, to give effort and commitment to what we’re trying to do.

How many girls do you generally like to keep on varsity?

[Around 15] … I kept a little more the last couple years because I had some kids who weren’t going to play but were great for the team and great for the program. We’re going to go with a few girls less this year, so 15 is going to be my magic number.

What’s your basic philosophy on underclassmen coming up with the varsity? What kind of threshold do you have for freshmen and sophomores making a varsity team?

Well you know, sticking with that number of 15, just trying to find what I believe are the 15 most talented girls. Doesn’t matter what year they are to me. I’m just trying to find the best roster I can put together, and if a freshman is better than a senior, then at this level, and with the competitive nature of all the schools out there that we play, that’s how I select [players]. So the age doesn’t matter. It’s more about talent and commitment to the program and the enthusiasm for softball.

What kind of bearing do you think this winter is going to have on the start of the spring season?

Oh, it’ll be terrible. Nobody is going to get outside. I guess teams that have access to larger facilities have a slight advantage over the rest of us but I still don’t think you can completely simulate anything indoors unless you’re out at Rosemont or something like that. … It’s going to take everyone a little while to get going. We probably won’t see everyone’s best effort until the end of April, beginning of May, sometime halfway through their conference schedule.

Is there a certain part of the game in particular that suffers in a scenario like that?

I really think hitting suffers most because you can’t do live hitting. You can do [batting machines] all day long but that doesn’t simulate game situations. I can hit a ground ball in a hallway, in the gymnasium, but I really can’t go into the hallway and have a girl throw live to somebody else, so I think hitting and timing and those kind of things really suffer for not being able to get live looks.

I’m sure we’ll talk in more detail about the team in the coming weeks, but with Angie coming aboard and the girls you have returning, does it feel as if this can be special group?

So far, I think so. Angie, I haven’t seen her play yet. I know she comes in with a lot of hype and a lot of expectations from everyone outside Kaneland, ‘Oh, boy, Kaneland has Angie Morrow,’ but she still has to go out there and prove herself, and she’s willing to do that. She’s demonstrated so far she’s committed to our program. I haven’t seen any jealousy [on the team] or anything. … We have the majority of our starters back, and the past couple of seasons, we’ve played well, so I don’t anticipate much of a drop-off. I’d hope we actually elevate our game with the people we have returning and the addition of Angie.

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