NORMAL - A frequent topic broached by Normal Community High School softball coach Bob Grimes to his players is why in tarnation they are working so hard.
"We keep telling them all year you are practicing for the end of the year," said Grimes, whose team has survived to reach today's Class AA Elite Eight at East Peoria's EastSide Centre.
"I think it's all paid off because you have your ups and downs during the regular season and so far in the postseason we have been on an even keel the whole way."
The keel hasn't seen the Ironmen (29-7) commit an error the past three games ahead today's 5 p.m. state tournament quarterfinal against Chicago Resurrection (30-4).
"It seems we've been playing better and better," said Grimes, whose school is making its fourth Elite Eight appearance since 2001. "I still don't know if we've played our best game yet or not."
Second-year Resurrection coach Mike Marrese, whose school had never won a sectional prior to this year, knew his team was in for a stellar year.
"We had two excellent weeks of practice after tryouts," he said. "I knew at that time this team would do well. As the year went on, I felt we would be a force in the state playoffs."
The Bandits have done especially well during their current 15-game winning streak, which included a 6-5, nine-inning win over Skokie Niles West and a 5-4, eight-inning win over Chicago Lane in the sectional.
"They were just determined to pull those games out," Marrese said.
Leading the way has been 5-foot-10 sophomore pitcher Hana Somogyi, who is 25-1 with a 0.91 earned run average. She has fanned 251 in 177 innings.
"She's just been phenomenal," said Marrese, whose star is also batting .455 with a team-leading 40 runs batted in.
"The thing that impresses me about her is the way she conducts herself on the mound. You'd think it was a senior out there pitching."
Somogyi, who has only walked 43, uses a curveball, a riseball and a changeup that looks like a fastball.
Grimes' scouts liken Somogyi to NCHS freshman Megan Nonnemacher (11-4, 0.72 ERA).
"I think we have a very good chance," Grimes said. "We just have to play our game."
Somogyi's teammates include three future college players in left fielder Katie Kiscellus (Carthage), shortstop Deanna Angelini (Loras) and third baseman Alex Athens (Ohio Dominican).
Athens bats .385 while Angelini and Kiscellus each hit .256. Other top batters are Angela Wright (.444) and Nicole Nadrowski (.408).
NCHS counters with second baseman Katie Lutes (.333), third baseman Shayla Hoenes (.333) and shortstop Jessi Smith (.294).
Ironmen pitching ace Amber May (14-2) has a 0.33 ERA after striking out 296 in 127 1/3 innings.
"They are similar to us in that they don't have a lot of seniors," said Marrese, who has five seniors to four for NCHS.
"The key for us and what's been our approach since the (Girls Catholic Athletic) conference playoffs has been to treat this like any other game. When you treat a game special, you play differently."
Marrese rates Barrington (35-3), Frankfort Lincoln-Way East (31-7) and Oak Park-River Forest (33-6) as the favorites. The NCHS-Resurrection winner faces either Oak Park-River Forest or Edwardsville (35-3) in Saturday's noon semifinal. Saturday's third-place game is at 4:30 p.m. and the title game at 7.
Four Elite Eight schools have won state titles including NCHS (2001), Lincoln-Way East (2002), Oak Park-River Forest (2005) and Downers Grove South (1993).
NCHS catcher Jordan Menendez thinks her team can win again.
"If we play like we can, if we play Ironmen softball, we stand as good of a chance as any team right now," said Menendez, who believes Ironmen softball means discipline at the plate and defense.
"It all comes down to pride. We take a lot of pride in our at bats and our defense and in general being an Ironman."
Class AA state tournament
AT EAST PEORIA
- Game 1 - 10 a.m. - Bartlett (30-6-1) vs. Downers Grove South (31-5-1)
- Game 2 - Noon - Barrington (35-3) vs. Frankfort Lincoln-Way East (31-7)
- Game 3 - 5 p.m. - Normal Community (29-7) vs. Chicago Resurrection (30-4)
- Game 4 - 7 p.m. - Oak Park-River Forest (33-6) vs. Edwardsville (35-3)