So, for the past three years, picking the Morris Daily Herald Softball Most Valuable Player has actually not been all that hard. In the two years leading up to this spring, Seneca’s Nicole Pihl had put up numbers not seen from a player in this area since Kirsten Verdun.
In the meantime, Minooka pitcher/shortstop Sara Novak was playing in relative obscurity for the Indians, quietly piling up solid numbers of her own. This while playing ball against a Class 4A schedule.
Numbers aside, I remember the first time I saw Sara play, though not the actual date or anything, and right away I could tell she was something special. By the end of her sophomore year, I told anyone that would listen to me that she had the most natural swing I had seen from any sophomore who was playing at the varsity level ever. This is not to compare the swings of Verdun or Pihl or anyone else I saw play, it’s just my opinion.
The University of Wisconsin must have recognized this, too, since she has a full-ride scholarship to play with the Badgers starting this fall.
What I didn’t know was that Novak also had the smarts to go along with her game.
“Sara is a smart girl, scholar athlete, she was in the Indian athletic leadership club, other teachers would comment on how helpful she was,” Minooka coach Mark Brown said. “On the field, her talents speak for themselves.”
The next uniform that Pihl puts on will be for the De Paul Blue Demons. She had another fantastic year for the Fighting Irish this summer and may have actually been the MDH MVP again this year by the numbers. However, after the run the Indians got on, and the way that Novak took the point on leading the locals to their first state championship in school history, the choice actually became a foregone conclusion this spring.
About the only thing that was a chink in Novak’s armor was the drop off in her pitching numbers from a year ago. Last year she had 14 wins, a 1.65 ERA and she struck out 227 batters in 127 innings. That included a game against Plainfield North in which Novak struck out 18 of the 21 batters she faced. This year she had a 2.92 ERA, which isn’t bad - it’s just not 1.65.
“I believe Sara had a down year pitching because of the crazy weather and all the cancellations,” Brown said. “It was hard to get in a rhythm, and (Jackie) Lilek was pitching so well, we didn’t feel like we had to run Sara out there every game. She started to pitch well towards the end of the season and really dominated in the playoffs.”
Novak ended the season by throwing a perfect game against Oswego East and then ended the postseason by nine innings of two hit ball in the state tournament while walking one and striking out 13.
“Looking back it’s the one area I wish I could have done better in. I was up and down throughout the season.
Early in the season, that’s when I struggled the most. I wasn’t pitching well, but I was coming off a fall and winter in which I don’t pitch a lot,” Novak said. “Not being able to get into the swing of things because games were getting canceled. By the time we started playing regularly, it was cold. Even towards the middle of the season. Our first couple of games were against Lockport and Bolingbrook, who are good teams. At that time of the season it’s hard to make good pitches against good hitters. As the weather warmed up I just got more comfortable.”
In addition to her individual performance, we talked about what the Indians did in the hours before the state games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“We went down on Thursday afternoon and then on Thursday night there was a banquet for all the teams,” Novak said. “There they interviewed the coaches and it was a chance to get to know everyone.”
She also said the team stayed loose by doing the kind of fun things that teenagers like to do.
“We went out and saw a movie. Some of us went and saw ‘Now You See Me’ and some went and saw the ‘The Purge’,” Novak said. “We also went mini-golfing, go-carting and things like that. It was a fun weekend.”
Novak said the secret to her success with the Indians is really no secret at all.
“It sounds cliche, but you need to really work hard at practice and work real hard on your own. People don’t really realize what kind of a time commitment it is,” she said. “Also, don’t stop believing in yourself or your teammates. Make a commitment to them so that you don’t lose faith in each other. There were times where we could have given in and written it off, but we stuck together and look what happened.”
Perhaps it will end with the Indians finding a way to honor one of their best players to ever wear a Minooka softball uniform.
“If we could, we would retire her jersey number,” Brown said. “She is the best softball player I have ever coached.”