NORMAL — It began in glorious fashion for Jaxynn Dyson, Jess Jacobs and Mikayla Fairfield. Freshmen on a talented senior-laden team, they took part in an exhilarating run to the 2016 Class 4A state championship game.
Normal West High School’s softball team came within a strike of winning that title contest before falling in extra innings. Still, the journey was all sorts of fun for everyone in a West uniform, including those just getting started.
There have been tears of joy but also sadness since then. Dyson, Jacobs and Fairfield endured the death of their dear friend and teammate, Olivia “Livi” Sonetz, just prior to the 2018 season. They lost the team’s beloved P.A. man and No. 1 fan, Charlie Crabtree, to a semitrailer-bus accident prior to this season.
All the while, Dyson’s mother, Courtney, has bravely battled breast cancer.
“We’ve had a lot of good, but also had a lot of bad,” Dyson says.
Through it all, they’ve had each other.
As Dyson, Jacobs and Fairfield approach their final game as teammates — on the Intercity squad for Monday’s Pantagraph All-Star Softball Game — they carry a bond forged by triumph and tragedy.
“We’ve really stuck together,” Fairfield said. “I definitely look at those two as some of the closest people I’ve had on and off the field. It’s really reassuring to know that even on my worst day, I still have those two to help me out and get me through whatever I’m going through.”
Jacobs has played softball with Dyson since third grade and Fairfield since sixth grade. Their friendship has grown throughout this “long ride” together, Jacobs said.
It went to another level after Sonetz died in a car accident in March 2018.
“I think it brought us three a lot closer,” Jacobs said. “We knew we had to be there for each other. If we wanted to make the best of our high school season, we had to come together instead of just fall down.”
They persevered through a junior season that saw Dyson, an Illinois State-bound shortstop, sidelined by a broken hand.
They forged on this season without Crabtree’s warm and supportive baritone voice, winning the Big 12 Conference championship during a 26-6 campaign.
“We are very, very close,” Dyson said of her friends and Coach April Schermann’s team in general. “Coach Schermann really wants us to have the connection as a team. She allows us to have the connection with her. She’s always there for us. It’s played a big role in helping us through the hardships that we’ve been through.”
Schermann has watched Dyson, Jacobs and Fairfield mature into college-bound players and top-flight leaders. She has seen them hold one another up through unthinkable circumstances.
She has marveled at their resiliency and strength.
“I think the only reason we were able to make it through all of this is because of the strong bond they have with each other,” Schermann said. “If one person was feeling down, they always had the others to help be there for them.
“They know that through all of these tough times, they have friends for life now. Anytime in life when something doesn’t go right, they know they have the support of the community and the family they built here.”
The value of Dyson, Jacobs and Fairfield on the field has been substantial. All batted better than .400 this season, with Jacobs leading the team in home runs (7) and RBIs (36).
A catcher the past three years, she played third base on that 2016 team. Dyson started at shortstop next to her and Fairfield was a frequent pinch runner off the bench.
They followed the lead of a senior class Fairfield called “amazing.”
“They took us under their wing and taught us what it’s like to be on the varsity and how to act like a varsity athlete,” she said. “They showed us how to manage leadership and have fun at the same time.”
Jacobs ranks that team as “the best thing I’ve been a part of,” adding, “All of them (the seniors) held each other accountable. They’re the reason I’m the player I am.”
Jacobs will play next year at Illinois-Springfield and Fairfield, an outfielder, at Heartland. Both will keep a close eye on Dyson’s progress at ISU.
First, they look forward to one last game with Schermann, the Intercity head coach, and her West assistants, Emily Starkey and Mandy White, in Monday’s 6:15 p.m. game at Champion Fields.
“They’re the best,” Dyson said.
The feeling is mutual.
“Having one more opportunity to coach them and knowing this is their last time in a Wildcat uniform, it’s really special to us,” Schermann said.