Softball: 5 storylines to follow across The Times area in 2024

Serena's Maddie Glade delivers a pitch to Ottawa on Tuesday, March 21, 2023 at Ottawa High School.

The 2024 softball season has started, and there is no lack of top players, top teams and intriguing storylines to keep an eye on this spring.

Here are five storylines to watch in the Times area this season:

Members of the St. Bede softball team hoist the Class 1A State championship trophy after defeating Illini Bluffs on Saturday, June 3, 2023 at the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex in Peoria.

Holy cow, just look at the Tri-County Conference now

Since Seneca joined the league in 2019, the always solid Tri-County Conference became a top-heavy powerhouse in the Class 2A/1A ranks. The aforementioned Fighting Irish, the Marquette Crusaders and the Woodland/Flanagan-Cornell co-op have perennially fought for the championship along with a dark horse such as Putnam County or Henry-Senachwine jumping into the title picture every now and again.

Added to the picture this spring is none other than the defending Class 1A state champion St. Bede Bruins.

With Seneca (Tessa Krull) and WFC (Shae Simons) returning their ace pitchers, Marquette bringing back the TCC’s leading home-run hitter (Taylor Cuchra), Dwight returning most of last season’s young roster that surprised and led the Trojans to a third-place finish in the TCC and now St. Bede joining the fold, the Tri-County race should be a thriller all spring long.

Newark’s Kodi Rizzo slides into home safely as Serena”s RayElle Brennan waits on the throw in the 1st inning on Monday, May 1, 2023 at Serena High School.

The Little Ten should be pretty entertaining as well

Even if it does appear as if it might be a two-team race.

The defending Little Ten Conference champion Newark Norsemen have a new coaching staff and a few new faces, but enough back from last year’s ballclub – including Times All-Area Team honorees Danica Peshia (first team), Ryan Williams (second team) and Kodi Rizzo (second team) – to likely be considered the favorites when LTC play begins.

The conference runners-up from a year ago, however, look strong in their own right. Serena brings back three all-area performers of its own, namely Paisley Twait (first team), Maddie Glade (second team) and RayElle Brennan (honorable mention), from last spring’s regional championship roster.

Last season’s third- and fourth-place LTC teams were Somonauk/Leland, which suffered some key losses in the offseason to graduation, injury and Hinckley-Big Rock no longer being part of the co-op, and Indian Creek, which will be starting a rookie pitcher.

Serena and Newark are scheduled to play their two-game series April 29 and 30.

Ottawa's Maura Condon delivers a pitch to Plano on Thursday, April 6, 2023 at King Field in Ottawa.

Marquette, Ottawa dealing new aces

Both of the city of Ottawa’s softball programs have been on fantastic runs the past handful of seasons. And both of those runs have been powered by top-notch pitching.

This spring, both the Crusaders and Pirates will be handing the ball to new aces.

Ottawa High graduated two-time Times Softball Player of the Year McKenzie Oslanzi, currently tearing it up as a freshman pitching for Division-I Eastern Illinois University. Marquette rode the left arm of four-year starter Kaylee Killelea until her graduation.

Both the Pirates and Crusaders have plans in place featuring returning pitchers who saw limited innings in, for the most part, lower-pressure situations. How well they step in will likely be the determining factor in how well the teams can keep their good things going.

Marquette's Kaylee Killela reacts to her team's defeat as the LeRoy softball team celebrates winning the Class 1A Illinois Wesleyan Supersectional, outlasting Marquette 2-1 on Monday, May 29, 2023, in Bloomington.

Will The Times area return to the IHSA State Finals in 2024?

The 2023 season saw no teams from the Times coverage area make the state tournament, though Ottawa’s two teams got awfully close.

Marquette lost in extra innings to eventual third-place finisher LeRoy in the Class 1A Illinois Wesleyan Supersectional.

In Class 3A, Ottawa lost in a sectional championship game to eventual 3A state champion Lemont, the second time the Pirates were eliminated by Lemont in a sectional final in three years.

Newark placed fourth in Class 1A in 2022, and in 2021 Marquette also fell in supersectionals.

Lemont has lost its all-everything ace pitcher Sage Mardjetko to graduation, perhaps cracking open a door for Ottawa in 3A. Despite having an all-sophomore battery, Seneca appears to be absolutely loaded for a deep run in the demanding 2A bracket. And The Times area always seems to have a contender – in recent years, whoever emerges from the knock-down, drag-out postseason battles between WFC, Newark, Marquette and Serena – in the Class 1A field.

We’ll find out come May.

Streator's Makenna Ondrey pitches against L-P on Wednesday, March 29, 2023 at Veteran's Park in Peru.

What players will emerge this spring?

Five of last season’s 14 Times All-Area Softball Team first-teamers

are gone to graduation. The nine returning, in order of votes received on last year’s all-area ballot, include Makenna Ondrey (Streator), Sam Vandevelde (Seneca), Alyssa Zellers (Seneca), Shae Simons (WFC), Paisley Twait (Serena), Danica Peshia (Newark), Taylor Cuchra (Marquette), Kendall Lowery (Ottawa) and Tessa Krull (Seneca).

Can they repeat the honor in an area bursting with softball talent? And who can step up to join them?

It will all be decided on the field.