A major influx of new blood in the Geneva softball program has helped reinvigorate the Vikings' longtime coach.
In coach Greg Dierks' 25th season with the Vikings, a youth movement yielded encouraging results, spreading optimism that the Vikings might not be far from a program breakthrough.
With half of Geneva's 14-player roster freshmen and sophomores – and all seven of those playing key roles – Geneva went 21-13, serving notice that the Vikings are on the upswing and earning Dierks Kane County Chronicle Softball Coach of the Year honors.
"The youth in the program, this is probably the most that we've had in terms of maybe the average age or whatever of the kids," Dierks said. "This might be the most in that direction that we've gone, but it was clear from day one when we started tryouts that our freshmen and sophomores that we had belonged there and were ready to go."
St. Charles East and St. Charles North have been the glamor programs around the Tri-Cities in recent years, with both St. Charles schools reaching the IHSA Class 4A state championship game within the past four years.
The Vikings aren't yet at that level, but Dierks is proud of how far Geneva softball has come since he took over in 1990.
"At the time our program, it was a little bit primitive," Dierks said. "Our girls at the time, most of them probably had to find their glove in the closet before tryouts. It was something that was going to take some time to develop to get to the point that we compete year in and year out. It didn't make it any less enjoyable back then, though. … It was still a lot of fun and the girls always worked hard."
If the current batch of Vikings' work ethic matches their talent, big things could be coming.
Most of the Vikings' most productive players are slated to return, including talented shortstop Anna Geary, who will be a senior next season. It's the program's rising juniors and sophomores, though, that could give Geneva staying power.
The team's four freshmen from this spring – Annika Radabaugh, Molly Wrenn, Kaitlyn Plocinski and Rylie Porretto – all batted .330 or better, with Radabaugh setting the program's single-season home run record with 11.
"They're not going to be able to sneak up on people," Dierks said. "I would assume people will recognize them [next year] from the year before and they're going to start working on finding weaknesses for them ... I feel they're going to come back better next year and they'll be prepared for the battle."
While offense was the Vikings' clear strength, young pitchers Emily Plocinski and Rachel Fanella showed flashes of promise. Dierks is hopeful offseason progress from them will allow Geneva to pull out more low-scoring games.
Geneva's season ended unconventionally; the Vikings were denied their final at-bat in a 6-4, regional semifinal loss to Waubonsie Valley as the game's second weather delay muddied the field. While upsetting at the time, Dierks thinks that game serves as a symbol for the unfinished business that awaits.
"I felt we were peaking at the end of the season," Dierks said. "I think they were starting to get a look of what they're capable of, and then at the same time see we're not there yet and there is [more] they want to do. They would like to break through and be the best team in the area. They want to win a conference championship, they want to advance in the postseason and they clearly felt some unfinished business at the end of the season, and see things we can do better to achieve those."