By Kyle Daubs

Hard-core Apollo softball fans might recognize a few players from two years ago. 

Otherwise, few remain. Charleston lost four players now competing for college programs who never got a chance to play an inning during their senior high school season.

Charleston’s Reagan McGahey is among three first-team All-Apollo players across the conference who return as seniors.

With the Apollo season set to start in about a week, coaches around the conference believe that the title chase will be a three-team hunt among Mount Zion, Charleston, and Effingham. 

Looking to defend their title

Greg Blakey, the Hall of Fame softball coach with 692 career wins at Mt. Zion, will begin his 34th season. The Braves are coming off two state finals seasons. In 2018, Mt. Zion took fourth place in Class 3A, while the team finished third in 2019. 

Blakey called his team “very inexperienced” – like most across the conference after a lost season.

Mt. Zion will start four seniors and five juniors. The core of the team features senior second baseman Marin Stenger, senior shortstop Caitlin Maley, junior catcher Gwen Bender, and sophomore pitcher and third baseman Gwen Bender. 

“These players will need to be the leaders for us to be good,” said Blakey. “The other kids around them must be able to put the bat on the ball for us to be successful.”

Blakey calls Charleston and Effingham the teams to beat in the Apollo despite Mt. Zion having finished 11-1 as the defending conference champion. 

“Both have some seniors that have good varsity experience and have been successful in the past couple of years,” said Blakey. 

Charleston’s Blain Mayhall counters that the Braves should be consider the favorite.

“There are a lot of good softball players playing in this conference,” said Mayhall. “In my opinion, Apollo is one of the toughest conferences in the area. Because of this, everyone will be competitive. Obviously, I feel like we can win the conference, but everyone must go through Mt. Zion as they are the reigning Apollo champions and always a well-coached team.”

No. 1 contender

Charleston finished second in the conference in 2019 with a 9-3 record and features potentially the best overall bat in the Apollo in McGahey. The Southern Illinois University product is a two-time first-team All-Apollo selection and hit .466 as a sophomore. 

Ashlynn McPeak and Ava Stephens round out the roster as the only other upperclassmen, as the roster features mostly freshman and sophomores. Still, the group will be hungry to compete after a large group of seniors graduated that likely could have contended for a state berth. 

“Ashlynn McPeak and Ava Stephens are our other seniors and leaders on the field,” said Mayhall. “Both are great players who, along with Reagan, will lead our offense and defense with such a young group of supporting cast.  We don’t have a junior on the roster.  We will start six sophomores and one freshman for most games.”

Sophomores Kara Moore, Mikayla Lane, and Kailyn Wilson will handle the pitching for Charleston, while sophomores Erin Blair and Clara Cox will catch. Moore started the season Saturday by one-hitting Normal over the final 4 1/3 innings in a 10-3 win and allowing 11 hits, striking out 13 and walking three across 12-plus innings in a tripleheader. 

Maci Mayhall will handle second base, while freshman Addison Shrader is a candidate for the outfield and pitching circle. 

Effingham will be led by Jaidi Davis, considered by coaches among the top pitchers in the conference. Senior catcher Emma Hardiek will likely be a top run producer.

“It’s hard to pick a front runner after not playing last year, but Charleston and Mt. Zion are the teams that I would predict to be solid,” said Effingham coach Jerry Trigg.

Climbing up the standings

Teutopolis will not be an unknown foe for most Apollo teams. For the first time in 15 seasons, the Wooden Shoes will feature a new coach after Rich Niebrugge (365-97, 14 seasons) stepped aside.

The Wooden Shoes won an IHSA Regional Championship in 2019 and feature several core players from that team, including senior second baseman Lexie Niebrugge, junior pitcher and first baseman Tia Probst, junior third baseman Daisha Piedra and sophomore shortstop Emily Konkel. 

“Being that this is our first year in the conference, I don’t have too much information to base a favorite or top contender,” said first-year coach Crystal Tipton. “I expect it to be extremely tough competition all around.”

Both Effingham and Mahomet-Seymour finished third in the conference in 2019 with 7-5 records.

Mattoon will look to get towards the top half of the season.  The team features two college commits – infielders Delainey Bryant and Raven Morrison. Bryant, who will play at Illinois State, is a former two-time All-Apollo selection. Morrison, who might also pitch this season, is headed to Danville Area Community College next season.

Seniors Xylia Greeson and Tinsley Risinger also have varsity experience. They all will have to replace Jordan Sapp, now playing at Lake Land College, as well as Maci Nadolny, Kate Jacobs, and Alexus Dibartolomeo. 

These four athletes brought a lot of leadership and experience to the team that we will miss this upcoming season,” said Dow. “Some of our strengths are going to be with our offense this year. We have quite a few girls that could bat anywhere in the lineup and are going to produce some runs for us. We also have some speed on the team, so we are going to look at being aggressive on the bases to get our runners in scoring position. As we continue to grow as a team, I think our leadership and work ethic could take us a long way as long as we get everyone to buy in every day.”

Outside of McGahey and Bryant, Mahomet’s Aubrey Shore is the only other returning All-Apollo selection. Hannah Harpster, a second-team selection for CHS in 2019, opted not to play her senior season. She will play golf at Illinois College next year.

2019 All-Apollo Team

First team 

Pitchers

Emily Price, jr., Charleston. Aubrey Eads, jr. Mount Zion. Chayse Ramey, jr., Mount Zion.

Others

Macey McElravy, sr., Charleston. Ramsey Armstrong, jr., Charleston. Reagan McGahey, so., Charleston. Carsyn Fearday, sr., Effingham. Sydney Worth, jr., Lincoln. Aubrey Shore, so, Mahomet-Seymour. Delainey Bryant, so, Mattoon. Ally Bruner, sr, Mount Zion. Dayna Kennedy, sr. Mount Zion. Kynzie Wrigley, jr., Mount Zion. 

Second team

Dee Campbell, sr. Charleston. Hannah Harpster, so., Charleston. Morgan Krouse, jr., Effingham. Grace McDowell, sr., Mattoon. Jordan Sapp, jr. Mattoon. Bailey Davis, sr., Mount Zion. Emma Ewing, jr., Mount Zion. 

2019 Final standings

1. Mount Zion 11-1. 2. Charleston 9-3. 3. tie, Effingham, Mahomet-Seymour 7-5. 5. Mattoon 5-7. 6. Lincoln 3-9. 7. Taylorville 0-12