By Kyle Daubs
When Mattoon brought back the bulk of a 30-3 regional championship team, everyone knew something special was in the making.
Mattoon High School owns a decorated history when it comes to softball. That includes an overall record of 765 wins to 285 losses, as well as 15 regional championships and six sectional championships in its 36-year history.
In 2008, the MHS squad had finished as the IHSA Class 3A runner-up. But some believe the 2012 team that finished with a school-record 36 wins and a fourth-place finish in state was the best group of players to walk through the doors.
“That team was really in tune together, especially towards the end,” said catcher Kaitlyn Pando (Bath). “Unfortunately, it didn’t show up in the first game of state, but that team was incredible.”
Mattoon had arguably one of the best two-way players in the state in Kacey Starwalt. In the pitching circle, Starwalt was coming off a 21-3 season with a 1.32 ERA to go with a .432 batting average that included four triples, five doubles, and a home run.
As for the offense, it was as deadly as it could get –– and they were all young. Three juniors made up the infield. First baseman Jamie Packer was an Honorable-Big 12 selection when she hit .400 with four homers, to go with a 9-0 pitching record with a 2.35 ERA.
At second base, Mattoon had the speedy Shelby Tate (now Farmer), and the power-hitting shortstop Malanie Sparks (Johns), who had driven in a team-high 39 runs in 2011.
Going to the outfield, there was just one senior in Kayla Jacobs (Quick) and the new MHS volleyball coach. She came off a junior campaign where she hit .396 with three homers, two triples, and five doubles. She was helped by Jaden Patterson, Hannah Pruden and sophomore Kasey Considine.
Speaking of sophomores, the team had two of the best in third baseman Riley Phipps and Pando (Bath) behind home plate. Both were All-State selections in 2012, but we’ll get to more on that later.
Of course, we can’t forget freshman pitcher, Kaitlyn Fisher, who quickly got thrown into the mix and became the team’s dependable No. 2 pitcher. However, the most important part of the team was that this group was as close personally as a team could get.
“I think we were so great because we all knew each other’s strengths and we all knew the position we were in and what our job was so our goal was to get that job done,” said Farmer.
The group of sophomores and juniors made up the IESA state championship softball team from Mattoon Middle School, so when Mattoon defeated two of the best softball schools in the state in lower classes, it came as no shock.
In the sixth game of the season, the Lady Wave were ranked No. 12 in the state and took on the task of playing Shelbyville, who was ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 2A. Mattoon made a statement by defeating future Arkansas pitcher Grace Moll, 9-2.
“I remember beating Shelbyville was huge because they had some pretty good softball players,” said Phipps. “I remember that at the beginning of the season, around that time, we all clicked pretty well together. I don’t know if there was ever a point where we thought we were really good, but we just had an expectation that we were going to be the best, and it carried all throughout the season.”
Mattoon followed that up by blowing through opponents on their schedule. The Lady Wave won the Mattoon Invitational by defeating Cumberland, 11-5, which was ranked No. 9 in Class 1A in the championship game.
At one point in the game, Mattoon trailed 2-1, but it was Fisher who allowed just two earned runs overall and pitched the complete game as a freshman.
The week afterward, Packer threw a no-hitter against Champaign Centennial in an 18-0 rout on that Tuesday. Then, just two days later, Starwalt threw a no-hitter over Danville in a 20-0 win, Fisher capped the week off by no-hitting Decatur Eisenhower in a 16-0 victory.
It showed how focused the team was when it came to Mattoon’s final season in the Big 12 conference. It also was living up to a rule set by the team, according to their head coach.
“They made a rule that we are going to win the Big 12,” Trower told JG-TC sports editor Brian Nielsen before the season started.
Mattoon’s strong season took a hit after the stretch of no-hitters.
On April 23, 2012, Mattoon suffered its first loss, losing 6-4 to St. Joseph-Ogdon, 6-4. The score was tied 1-1 until the fifth inning when an MHS error and wild pitch led to a five run inning and a 6-4 loss.
Then, four days later, Normal Community’s Nicole Nonnemacher limited Mattoon to one hit in a 2-0 loss. The loss dropped Mattoon to 5-1 in the conference, a half-game behind a 5-0 Normal squad.
Mattoon clung onto its conference title hopes by defeating Normal West, 3-2, and followed up with easy victories over Danville and Urbana. After two more wins, Mattoon raised its record to 29-2 by defeating Bloomington, 3-2, in a game that featured a two-run double by Sparks and an RBI-single from Phipps. More importantly, the Lady Wave were 11-1 in the Big 12, while Normal and Normal West each had one loss and had to play each other.
The Lady Wave clinched the title in the best way possible. Starwalt fired a perfect game (her third no-hitter of season) as the Lady Wave bid farewell to the Big 12 Conference with a 12-0 victory over Champaign Centennial.
“Someone told me (about the no-hitter) at the end of the game,” Starwalt told JG-TC reporter Mike Monahan after the game. “I didn’t realize it. I thought I had a no-hitter, but I didn’t really remember.”
The victory, which was the team’s 11th straight, also gave Mattoon its 30th win against just two losses and assured the Lady Wave of at least a tie for their 11th and final Big 12 title. Mattoon finished 12-1 in conference play.
“Winning it was our goal,” Starwalt told Monahan. “It is pretty exciting to end the Big 12 with a perfect game.”
Mattoon raised its state ranking to No. 8. Mattoon entered postseason play after a 9-8 loss to Mount Zion despite clobbering 18 hits. However, the team regained form by mercy-ruling Salem 13-2 and then blowing out Charleston, 7-0, in the regional championship.
The offensive outburst didn’t stop. The Lady Wave quickly took care of opponents in the Effingham Sectional, behind offensive contributions from Pando who hit two home runs in an 8-0 win over Belleville Althoff in the sectional semifinals and then blasted a three-run shot in a 9-0 victory over Centralia in the Sweet 16.
After the game, Pando was asked by JG-TC reporter Millie Lange if she had eaten Wheaties for breakfast. Pando simply shook her head and said: “Cinnamon rolls, that’s what I had for breakfast both days and Monday the whole team is coming over for cinnamon rolls.”
Nobody revealed what the team ate that Monday before a game that determined who would advance to the state tournament.
“I remember the Super-Sectional game didn’t have a single empty seat,” said Phipps. “For a small-town community, we were bigger than we ever thought.”
Normal West (26-11) and Mattoon (35-3) were given a rematch from an earlier 3-2 conference win by Mattoon in the regular season. What transpired next turned out to be one of the best games to ever be played at Roundhouse Softball Complex.
The first inning of the game took 20 minutes due to rai. But the skies cleared up later. And Normal West quickly took a 4-0 lead that shocked fans as Mattoon entered the bottom half of the first inning.
However, Lady Wave players thought this was just another ball game.
“We had been down in softball games before,” said Phipps. “The whole season, we had a mindset to just take it one inning at a time. In the Big 12, you couldn’t take a single team for granted. Playing that game in Mattoon, there was a sense of pride. We had to protect our house. The whole community was there to support us. We weren’t going to let a 4-0 deficit stop us.”
Mattoon immediately regained control of the game. With the bases loaded, Pruden hit a bases clearing double to make it 4-3. Pando singled to tie the score, 4-4. In the second inning, Phipps added a two-run double to give the team a 6-4 lead.
Normal West used two walks and a hit batter to scored four runs and take an 8-6 lead in the fifth inning. Mattoon was held scoreless for two more innings until the final inning. As Mattoon entered the bottom of the seventh, the team needed at least two runs to stay alive.
After an out, Phipps ripped her third hit of the game. Starwalt followed with a single. Pruden delivered an RBI single and Phipps beat the relay throw to home to make it 6-5.
“We battled back and forth that game,” Trower said. “I remember Riley Phipps blowing past me telling her to stop at third. I told her to stop and she blew right on home to score a run. I had a friend who I played softball with in high school and college who coached on that team. The back and forth banter was nice, but going out on top when it really mattered was amazing.”
With two outs, that brought up the sophomore Considine. What happened next will forever go down in Mattoon softball lore.
“In that atmosphere, and in that clutch moment, for her to make such a clutch hit as a sophomore: we were just so proud of her,” said Pando.
Considine delivered the game winning hit, which brought home Starwalt and then Pruden from second base. Mattoon defeated Normal West, 9-8, and were going to state. In the events that Nielsen chronicled in that moment, it will leave you speechless.
“I just hit it and ran,” Considine told him. “I ran all the way through the base and (assistant coach Amy) Sinclair came to me with open arms. I thought, ‘Oh my, we just won.’”
“I was just running,” Pruden said. “I knew she hit it well, and I just ran.”
Next thing you knew: “We were all on the ground crying,” Kacey Starwalt said
The Lady Wave had the next task of replicating what they had done in middle school. In game one, Mattoon ran into Glenbard South, the eventual IHSA Class 3A state championship. Glenbard South (37-4) beat Mattoon 11-1 in a six inning mercy rule in front of an announced attendance of 225 fans.
“I still haven’t let it go,” said Pando. “I remember that game because that was the game I hit my ninth home run. It was the same game the umpires called the game early because they thought it was 10-0. It was really 10-1. We were about to shake their hands, then they called us back onto the field just to get pounded again.”
In the third-place game, New Lenox Providence Catholic’s Amanda Wilson shut down Mattoon in seven innings, allowed two hits, and recorded eight strikeouts in a 1-0 victory.
“We just couldn’t hit the girl in the first game,” said Trower. “It was pretty hard to have such a successful season go down like that. I just remember how outplayed we got in the first game. I was thinking let’s come back out and show we can compete at this level. Even though we lost the second game, we came out and they gave it a better go.”
It was definitely a shock to see Mattoon get shut down the way they did. Mattoon’s 468 hits as a team ranks 14th most in IHSA history. From top to bottom, this was a dangerous lineup.
“I would say it was a shock,” said Packer. “The Big 12 had some really good teams, and some really bad teams. We weren’t really tested the way we were when we played them. It felt embarrassing that we didn’t live up to our potential.”
“The state tournament, we saw some good competition and it was kind of a shock,” added Farmer. “However, looking back on playing in high school with all my friends will always be one of the best times of my life because we were all best friends and loved playing out on the field together.”
Starwalt’s 90 career wins from 2010-2013 is tied for 17th most in IHSA history. In 2012, Starwalt was named second-team all state. Starwalt was 23-5 in the pitching circle, the best in the area with a 1.48 ERA. She had 181 strikeouts in 170 1/3 innings. Starwalt also hit .500, going 56-of-112 with 38 RBIs.
Bath and Phipps were named third-team all-state. Bath hit .421 with nine home runs and 37 RBIs, while Phipps hit .461 with 38 RBIs.
Looking at what this team produced at the next level is equally astonishing.
Starwalt went on to play at Division I Butler University for four years. Pando played two years at Lake Land College and transferred to Ball State. As for Phipps, she played two years at Heartland College and transferred to Illinois State University.
Tate played at Division II Southern Indiana. Jacobs played two years at Lincoln Land Community College, Pruden at Parkland College, Fisher at Lake Land, Sparks at Illinois Wesleyan, reserve outfield Ashley Purvis at Kaskaskia, and Considine nabbed a spot on the University of Kentucky club softball team.
However, through all the numbers, the one important element was that this team was a cohesive unit. Their relationship never ended after high school either.
“I think a lot of it had to do with us playing all the time together,” said Packer. “We trusted each other at their positions. We are still friends to this day. Some of us have gotten married and in high school we used to line up in position order. It’s something that we still do.”
For someone like Trower, the team and community gave her solace in staying. In 2009, Trower received the challenged task of taking over for IHSA Hall of Famer David McDowell, who compiled a 521-199 record as a coach. In four years, Trower guided Mattoon to a 124-20 record, four regional championships, and back-to-back sectional titles.
She left Mattoon in 2013 for a job in Monticello, but Trower now lives in Henderson Point, Mississippi.
But she remains grateful for her time in Mattoon.
“Those girls and those families are some of the best and favorite people in my professional life,” said Trower. “They were the real reason why I hung around Mattoon as much as I did. They were truly just a light in my life. It was an amazing experience, truly something special. I’m just grateful that I am still in contact with a lot of them and have seen them grow up. I’m lucky to have known them.”
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