The similarities between spring 2011 and spring 2014 are difficult to escape for the St. Charles North softball program.
Like 2011, North returns virtually its entire team intact. Like 2011, North is loaded with veteran, college softball-bound standouts. And like 2011, North is driven by the sting of an upset loss in regionals the year before.
One major difference looms between this spring and 2011, when North went on to finish second in the state in Class 4A. Unlike that season, this year's North Stars will have to reckon with a legitimate state championship contender within their own city limits.
St. Charles East was the 4A state runners-up in 2013, and, like the North Stars, the Saints are regarded among the state's elite teams entering this season. Between East and North, 10 players who were recognized as part of the Kane County Chronicle's 2013 all-area softball team return.
"The games against each other will be as intense as ever," North coach Tom Poulin said. "I think that me personally, I was proud of what [East did last year] … I was proud with being a graduate of that school. I'm just proud of St. Charles as a community when we have success at the state level.
"Having both teams being as strong as they are is a tribute to the travel teams in the area, the coaches at the youth level that get kids when they're young and teach them the game and coaches through high school in the schools and on the travel teams. I just [am proud] of the quality of teaching of the game that goes on in this area."
As for his North Stars, Poulin acknowledged a degree of déjà vu linking this season to 2011.
"We don't have as many seniors I would think as that team but there are some parallels there, I think," Poulin said. "This team is tired of me always bringing up the 2011 team, and then I just keep telling them they need to do something about it and make me talk about this team when it's all said and done."
Only senior pitcher Sabrina Rabin – the Chronicle's reigning Softball Player of the Year – played on North's 2011 team, which lost a 9-8 heartbreaker to Moline in the state championship game. Rabin (a Northwestern recruit) joins teammates Emily Brodner (Illinois) and Abby Howlett (Northern Illinois) as North Stars who have made Division I college commitments, and the North Stars also return productive 2013 cogs such as senior shortstop Mickey Goetz (Olivet Nazarene recruit), junior second baseman Kaitlyn Waslawski (seven strikeouts in 114 plate appearances last year) and outfielder Delaney Olinger.
East, meanwhile, brings back seven starters from last year's juggernaut, including ace pitcher Haley Beno, middle-of-the-order sluggers Alex Latoria and Kate Peterburs and clutch postseason contributor Sarah Collalti.
East coach Kelly Horan thinks last year's berth in the state title game diffuses any pressure for this year's Saints.
"We had a great year last year – nobody is going to forget that, obviously," Horan said. "We're totally focused on this year. One thing that's nice about the big trophy over at East now is there's no pressure. We're about getting better, improving, on a daily basis, and we're good with that."
North beat East head-to-head both times last year en route to winning the Upstate Eight Conference River title but the North Stars fell to South Elgin in a regional final while East raised its game in the postseason.
Horan praised the UEC as a softball powerhouse, saying the Saints' road to conference and postseason success will be filled with major challenges.
"That's definitely true of the East-North game but if you look at the top four in the state for probably the last five years, it's been somebody from our conference, so to be the best you've got to play the best, and our schedule is filled with great teams," Horan said.
Whether the greatest of those challengers is only a few miles crosstown remains to be seen.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Gabi Alfaro, Aurora Central Catholic, Jr., IF
New ACC coach Tom Babyar plans to move the slick-fielding, multisport standout from third base to shortstop this season.
Haley Beno, St. Charles East, Sr., P
Beno pitched St. Charles East within one game of the IHSA Class 4A state championship as a junior. Enough said.
Emily Brodner, St. Charles North, Sr., C
North's hard-hitting catcher committed to Illinois during the offseason.
Marissa Gagliano, Wheaton Academy, Sr., IF
The returning Second-Team All-Area Selection brings a long track record of success both at the high school and travel levels to the Warriors.
Brooke Gaylord, Burlington Central, Sr., P/OF
Gaylord hit better than .500 as a junior and will again factor heavily into Central's strong pitching rotation.
Anna Geary, Geneva, Jr., IF/OF
After tearing her ACL in July, Geary (.429 batting average last year) is practicing with a brace and projects to be ready for year three as a varsity starter.
Bekah Harnish, Burlington Central, Sr., C/IF
Northern Illinois recruit hit .530 with 27 RBIs for Central and is also highly regarded for her work behind the dish.
Abby Howlett, St. Charles North, Jr., IF
Slugging first baseman looking to build on breakout sophomore year in which she hit .510 and drove in 39 runs, leading to an offseason commitment to Northern Illinois.
Paige Kuefler, Kaneland, Jr., C
Entering her third year as a mainstay of Kaneland's lineup, Kuefler gives Kaneland a middle-of-the-order run-producer and seasoned back-stop.
Alex Latoria, St. Charles East, Jr., IF/P
One of the area's most intimidating power hitters (10 homers as a sophomore), Latoria likely will see more time pitching to complement Beno when she's not playing third base for the Saints.
Angie Morrow, Kaneland, Jr., P
After an injury-plagued sophomore year, the Wisconsin recruit and Burlington Central transfer could be a game-changer for the Knights – both on the pitching rubber and at the plate.
Kate Peterburs, St. Charles East, Sr., IF
Peterburs was in the heart of East's vaunted lineup last year and gave herself a tough act to follow after batting .500 as a junior.
Sam Phelps, Rosary, Sr., IF
Phelps batted .365 as a junior and will be looked to for offensive leadership in a Rosary lineup that also includes .300-plus hitters Emma Molenhouse and Jessica Wade from last year's team.
Sabrina Rabin, St. Charles North, Sr., P/OF
The reigning Kane County Chronicle Softball Player of the Year, a Northwestern recruit, is arguably the area's toughest out, fastest player and one of the top pitchers in the Upstate Eight Conference.
Maggie Remus, St. Francis, Sr., P
The veteran control artist went 22-1 with a 1.05 ERA last year but might have to adjust to less run support than she was used to last year, according to her dad, Spartans coach Ralph Remus.
TEAMS TO WATCH
While Bekah Harnish and Brooke Gaylord return as .500-plus hitters, coach Wade Maisto has plenty of quality depth in the lineup, including sophomore Emily Kisch, outfielder Courtni Neubauer and sophomore Becca Gerke, who will transition from outfield to the infield. Shortstop Tori Harvey – who missed much of last season with a knee injury – could be an important piece for a Rockets team that will play a dynamite nonconference schedule.
Kaneland went 24-5 last year without the benefit of a lights-out pitcher, which the Knights appear to have added in Burlington Central transfer Angie Morrow. Offensively, catcher Paige Kuefler, outfielders Lanie Callaghan and Lexi Roach and Morrow should lead the way in a formidable lineup that returns seven starters.
St. Charles East
The 2013 IHSA Class 4A state runner-up graduated state semifinal heroine Olivia Lorenzini but have seven starters back: ace pitcher Haley Beno, outfielder Tess Hupe, first baseman Kate Peterburs, infielder/pitcher Alex Latoria, outfielder Sarah Collalti, infielder Olivia Cheatham and outfielder Katie Kolb. Cheatham and sophomore Kelly Rinker are both being evaluated at shortstop, with the other likely to slide to second base.
St. Charles North
After a surprisingly early postseason exit, North returns its entire group from last year's Upstate Eight Conference River champion team. More competition in the outfield arrives with lefty, slap-hitter newcomers Jordyn Wolfe and Abi Ginther, but it'll predominantly be the same, talented bunch that rolled last year, led by do-it-all senior Sabrina Rabin, who will hope to end her high school career where it began as a freshman – at the state finals in East Peoria.
The presence of senior pitcher Maggie Remus should go a long way, but the Spartans graduated several big bats from last year's powerhouse team. Coach Ralph Remus is counting on junior first baseman Ali Dietrich, catcher Fiona Summers, third baseman Emma Davis and right fielder Carley Pasquale to help the Spartans reload.