Aurora Christian softball coach Rich Hazlett presided over a dramatic scene during the Eagles' first practice of the season.
"I lined them up on the line and said 'Congratulations for winning state,' " Hazlett said. "I put medallions on their head and I walked throughout all the girls and I said 'This is where I want to go.' They were a little indifferent to it, and I said 'This is where my heart is and I'm going to do everything possible to get us there, and I need you to do everything possible to be there if that's what you want to do.' "
Monday's 17-1 loss at Wheaton Academy provided the latest dose of reality of how far the Eagles have to go to make that vision a reality. As the program reboots after a one-year hiatus in 2013, the Eagles are gratified that no longer how lopsided the defeats, they're at least taking the field and working toward a better future.
Senior catcher Keeley Slamans, of Sugar Grove, was among the Eagles who were exasperated to find out shortly before the 2013 season was to begin that Aurora Christian didn't have enough players to field a team. Hazlett said there were "eight or nine" girls in the mix but a few more were needed.
"The seniors from last year were kind of the ones on the edge," Slamans said. "They would have made our numbers, so we were all shocked they ended up not playing for their senior year, which kind of made us all suffer."
Hazlett acknowledged last year's lost season was a "major setback" as he sought to continue changing the program's culture in what would have been his second season on the job. Instability had plagued the program in the years before Hazlett took over.
"When you have a constant turnover of head coaches in a program you tend to get a recreational type feel for the sport," Hazlett said. … "It's really hard to build a premier program when you can't get consistency from year to year to year. Players want to be on something that is solid foundationally and has the potential to be great, and I think that's the kind of culture I'm trying to set."
This spring has made it crystal-clear that greatness won't be attained easily or quickly.
On Monday, the Eagles scored a run in the top of the first at Suburban Christian Conference foe Wheaton Academy before yielding 17 straight runs in another mercy-rule, five-inning defeat. That kind of humbling experience was typical of a season in which the Eagles have dropped games by scores such as 22-0 (three times), 21-0, 20-0 and 19-1.
Even the one victory for the Eagles (1-15) came in bizarre fashion. Aurora Christian split a May 3 doubleheader with Illinois Math and Science Academy, winning the second game, 12-11, with only eight players available.
"A lot of girls didn't decide [they were going to come out this year] until the last minute so there were some girls who had already purchased tickets to the ballet, so they couldn't get their money back, and so they unfortunately had to leave," Hazlett said.
Of the 13 players Hazlett has to work with, only four are upperclassmen. The Eagles' eight-player sophomore class seems to hold the key to the program's future.
While senior pitcher Jordan Pittman linked up last spring with a team of players from various schools that competed together in tournaments, most of the Eagles found other outlets for their time, leading to stunted skill development.
"It's definitely hard," Slamans said. "Definitely not the way we wanted to come into this year. We wanted to come in more prepared for our senior year, but it was hard doing that with not having a season last year. For sure, hard."
Junior center fielder Alyssa Hernandez said she spent last spring preparing for basketball season. Hernandez had never played softball before picking up the sport her freshman year at Aurora Christian, and said "it's definitely been a little bit of a struggle for me" to rediscover her rhythm.
Still, Hernandez said she and the Eagles' other leaders are determined not to give in to frustration.
"The team totally battles in everything we do," Hernandez said. "Us as captains, we try to encourage them because we know that some of them haven't even touched the ball before so we kind of just keep it uplifting over here."
Competing in the SCC against bigger schools such as St. Francis, Montini and Marian Central has proven daunting for the Eagles, who are relieved to dip down to Class 1A for the postseason later this month.
During Monday's game at Wheaton Academy, the scoreboard was slow to reflect the updated score as the Warriors' lead continued to swell in the bottom of the third. There was no clamoring from the crowd to fix the score with the game already well out of hand, a scenario with which the Eagles have grown all too familiar.
Yet Slamans and her teammates continued to compete with class. At one point, a fan tossed a retrieved foul ball over the fence toward her, and Slamans cheerily thanked him before resuming her squat in anticipation of the next pitch.
"Even though it is really hard to stay positive during games, I think all of us upperclassmen would say it's teaching us a lot with patience and teaching us a lot how to be strong leaders through adversity," Slamans said.