Huntley’s softball team didn’t get a chance to defend its Class 4A state championship from 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, ending the careers of five seniors in 2020. Missing that opportunity was a big blow, but one the Red Raiders didn’t dwell on for too long.
The Raiders almost pulled off an unbelievable feat with back-to-back state championships before falling to eventual state champion Marist, 1-0, in the state semifinals.
Huntley bounced back with a 4-3 win over Minooka in the third-place game to complete its second straight season with a 35-7 record, matching its team-best mark from 2019, and bringing home its second trophy in as many seasons.
[ Photos: Huntley, Minooka battle for third at state ]
Huntley also completed the first 18-0 season in the Fox Valley Conference and now has four FVC titles in the past five seasons, along with six straight regional and two straight sectional titles.
Over the past three season (2018, 2019 and 2021), Huntley has gone 102-20 under head coach Mark Petryniec, who surpassed 350 career wins in his 17th season at the school. Petryniec now has 384 wins in his coaching career, which puts him just outside the top 50 in state history, according to records on IHSA.org.
For leading the Raiders to another standout season, Petryniec is the 2021 Northwest Herald Softball Coach of the Year as voted by the sports staff. Petryniec, a four-time winner of the honor, recently spoke to sports writer Alex Kantecki about some of his favorite memories from the 2021 season.
What was the most memorable game of the season?
Petryniec: Definitely the Barrington Supersectional [a 6-5 win over Barrington]. Eleven innings, back and forth, both pitchers pitching lights out, and Abby [Simandl] coming up with the walk-off [home run] in the 11th. That’s got to be in [one of] the top-two best games I’ve been a part of.
What sport would you just be no good at coaching?
Petryniec: It probably would be volleyball. For a while I was an eighth grade “B” team coach. And no, I was not good at it. ... I would make up rotations and told, ‘You can’t do that!’ I never could understand rotations.
What is your most prized possession?
Petryniec: Outside of my kids and the softball world because I am a hoarder with the softball collection ... I have dirt from U.S. Cellular Field form Paul Konerko’s last game. He was one of my favorite players. To be at his last game was really cool.
What was the biggest challenge this season?
Petryniec: COVID affected us this year with the shortened schedule, losing kids to quarantine, regulations on the bus. Although I am 1,000% appreciative that we had a full season and postseason, it definitely was a challenge to work through some of the the things with COVID.
How did your schedule help you prepare for the postseason?
Petryniec: The kids were really battle tested. We played only 10 home games [out of 42]. We had nine conference games and an extra home game. It really prepared the girls to handle anything they were going to see in the postseason. Now, I don’t know if I would recommend a schedule like that again, but they were prepared.
How has your coaching style changed over the years?
Petryniec: It’s more about realizing it’s not about you. It’s about the program. Getting the kids to buy in and understand what the program is about. When you’re playing for a school, you’re playing for much more than yourselves. It’s about all of us as a whole as opposed to any one individual. Everybody’s replaceable, and we play for the program.
What are you most proud about the program you have helped build?
Petryniec: Really the buy-in [from the players]. Most of all, that they are so proud to play for Huntley. We’ve put a big target on our backs. No matter who we play, we know we’re going to see everybody’s best, and we have down days, too. On those days, we have to battle through that. The kids know that, to play for Huntley, it’s more than just working out in the summer. It’s working out year round to be the best player that you can be.
What will you remember most about the senior class?
Petryniec: The team “GroupMe” text. We communicate a lot through GroupMe, just like practice times and other stuff. This team took our GroupMe to the next level this year. They kept it light and loose all the way through the end of the season, up until the minutes before playing Marist. The seniors really knew how to keep everybody loose and relaxed.
If you could have dinner with any three people, who would they be?
Petryniec: Oklahoma softball coach Patty Gasso, Michael Jordan and Mark Buehrle.
What are some must-see TV programs?
Petryniec: If anyone hasn’t gotten on board, they should be watching the [Women’s] College World Series. That is what my DVR is set to. I also watch a lot of the Food Network.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
Petryniec: The perception is that I’m stricter than what I am. I think the girls that have been around the program know that. You have to maintain a certain attitude, especially when you’re running a program. I am kids first and anything for those kids in the program. I don’t know if they know that all the time. So, yeah, I’ll blow my cover. Coach P is soft.
What will you remember most about the career of pitcher Briana Bower?
Petryniec: Looking back, it’s just a memory after memory. To watch as she came in and worked with [2018 graduate Tiffany Giese], she’s never had an ego. And she’s passed that along to the other girls. It’s always been about the team. Every game she went out there, there was another gear. When you didn’t think there was another gear, she found another gear. She was amazing to watch. She’s an amazing kid, the situations she got out of, and if she had failure, how she rebounded from that. She didn’t let it define her, and she got better.
Which player on your team made you laugh the most?
Petryniec: [Senior first baseman] Alex [Kiriakopoulos]. There were a lot of times when there was a lot of stress in our games, and Alex knew how to keep the girls loose. Even at Barrington, she dove for a ball and fell face first. She was the first to make fun of herself. Even in some bigger moments, her humor and style were able to keep us loose.
What are you looking forward to most next season?
Petryniec: Just for the girls that are coming back and the girls that will make the team to realize what was established. ... I know Bri carried us a lot this year, and it’s now time for somebody new to step up. It’s not going to be one person, but it’s going to be a collective effort. We have arms in our program, and we have bats. I almost wish the season was about to start again so we can start proving and taking that chance at state again.