Who are the top 10 high school softball teams in the Rockford area for 2022?

Durand's Emmie Nyen pitches against Orangeville at Nick Saelens Memorial Park Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Durand.
Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

The high school softball season is here. 

We first picked the top players in the Rockford area. Now, here are the preseason area softball rankings, with teams ranked according to how they are expected to do both in the playoffs and during their conference seasons:

1. Durand

The Bulldogs (15-4, 8-2 NUIC North) graduated four key seniors off a team that has enjoyed the best three-year stretch (47-19) in school history, including 18-4 in the conference the last two seasons. But the reigning NFC North co-champs still have senior Jenna Damon and the Nyen sisters, Emmie and Elaina. “Damon is one of the best catchers in the area and has a strong bat,” Orangeville coach Lon Scheuerell said.

Emmie Nyen (Sr. P) and junior twins Elaina Nyen (1B) and Erica Nyen (3B) helped lead Durand to its first-ever conference title last year. The Bulldogs graduated four seniors, but also return Mariyah Fritzel (soph. P), Alisa Moore (Jr. P), Rachel Nevdal, (Soph. Inf) and Rhiannon Robertson (Soph. Inf).

2. North Boone

North Boone (17-6, 7-2), led by three Goodman sisters, returns six of its top eight players from a team that finished one game short of its first Big Northern title last year. The Vikings are 23-6 in the conference the last two seasons. Senior Lexi Goodman gives the Vikings solid pitching and sophomore catcher Danielle Goodman is coming off an unheard-of freshman season, batting .668 with 14 homers and 60 RBIs. But Stillman Valley, Oregon, Byron, Rock Falls and a much-improved Genoa-Kingston make for a deep, deep pool of six contenders for the BNC crown. Rock Falls could be particularly dangerous as the Rockets return their No. 1 pitcher, who was out with an injury last season.

Top players:The top 15 high school softball players in the Rockford area for 2022

3. Oregon

The Hawks went from 10-43 the previous two years to a share of their first Big Northern title in well over a decade last year. Oregon also returns its three best players: Mia Trampel (Sr. P/Inf), Bella Koertner (Sr. 3B/SS) and Liz Mois (Jr. C/OF) all were named second- or third-team all-state by the Illinois Coaches Association last year, making them three of the top 100 players in the state in Class 2A. Oregon (24-8, 8-1 BNC) also returns several other starters and adds star freshman Ella Dannhorn. “Ella can flat-out run fast, and she has a very good bat to go with her wheels,” coach Nate Rogers said.

“It will be interesting to see how it plays itself out in a full 18-game conference schedule compared to the shortened one last season,” North Boone coach Tim Fleming said, referring to last year’s nine-game league schedule.

4. Pearl City

The Wolves (16-6, 6-4 NUIC North) return the area’s most dominant pitcher in Cheyenne Handsaker (200 striikeouts in 107 1/2 innings as a junior) and three top hitters from a team that barely lost to Orangeville, 4-3, in the sectional finals and split with both North co-champs Orangeville and Durand during the regular season. Handsaker, C/1B Brianna Stager and OF/2B Brynn Solt are all three-year senior starters for Pearl City, who graduated only second baseman Madyson Stephen and outfielder Kylee Baker off of last year’s regulars. Orangeville coach Lon Sheuerell said Stager “has one of the strongest arms I have seen as a catcher in 1A softball.”

5. Belvidere

Either Hononegah or Harlem has won the NIC-10 softball title 15 years in a row, ever since Freeport went 15-1 in the league in 2005 (although the Pretzels also shared the 2018 title with Hononegah, a game ahead of Harlem). But this year is different.

“The top teams in the NIC-10 conversation has to start with Belvidere,” North coach Brian Hilden said. “You can’t argue with two All-State players, one of which is a pitcher.”

Two all-state players, one family. Senior McKenna Morris may be the best pitcher in the NIC-10 this year, and junior McKyler Morris is a star outfielder/catcher. McKenna Morris batted .507 last year with 17 extra-base hits and 30 RBI and was 10-4 on the mound with a 3.29 ERA. The Bucs graduated only two starters and bring back three-year starters McKenna Morris, Kennedy Coryell and Sophia Hulsey. The Bucs went from 6-17 to a dramatically improved 15-5 (14-4) last year. That tied their second-most conference wins ever (14-2 in 1992, 14-4 in both 1988 and 2016).

The only time the Bucs have done better is in 1989, when they went 16-2. Their only conference titles were in 1988 (shared with Hononegah) and 1989. This could be their third.

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Stillman Valley's Josie Larson fields the ball in right field in the fifth inning of their game in Davis Junction Thursday, May 6, 2021. North Boone won the game 13-2.

6. Stillman Valley

The Cardinals (14-6, 8-1) are annual Big Northern contenders, going 67-7-1 in the league the last five years. Addison Wythe leads the way. She was conference co-pitcher of the year along with Oregon’s Mia Trampel last season and has been Stillman’s No. 1 pitcher since she was a freshman. Grace Pfeiffer (CF/P) and Josie Larson (2B/OF) are two other returning senior all-conference players.

Stillman graduated four senior two-year starters but has several able replacements, including Kaitlyn Williams, Norah DeRosso, Ellie Busson, Sophia Morrison, Anna Bradle and Brooklyn Lee. “We have a lot of quality freshmen,” coach Shawn Byers said. “We are pretty quality throughout. There might be different, younger girls I bring up, but I don’t think we will miss much.”

7. Forreston

The defending NUIC South champs (16-2, 10-0) begin with Michigan State volleyball recruit Kara Erdmann. The senior left-handed pitcher is a great two-way player. She set a school record with 48 runs scored as a freshman, when she batted .516. As a pitcher last year, she was NUIC South MVP and went 12-2 with a 1.43 ERA and 133 strikeouts in 83 innings.

The Cardinals graduated a pair of three-year starters in Paityn Broshous and Taylor Greenfield but their other key players last year were all either sophomores (Brooke Boettner, Rylee Broshous, Hailey Greenfield and Alaina Miller) or freshmen (Jenna Greenfield and Nevaeh Houston). “I am very excited,” coach Kim Snider said. “I know the girls are excited. They are just a good group of kids. They want to do well together, and we have other freshmen and sophomores ready to step in.”

Orangeville second baseman Megan Holder watches a Durand hit fly by at Nick Saelens Memorial Park Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Durand.

8. Orangeville/Aquin

Coach Lon Scheuerell began last year by saying this was his most talented Orangeville team ever. The Broncos (23-3, 8-2 NUIC North) backed that up by finishing third in the state in Class 1A. Orangeville now has 17 consecutive 20-win seasons, three straight sectional titles and its first state trophy, all under Scheuerell. This year should be another great season.

Conference MVP Tessa Janecke (Sr. SS) led the Broncos with a .597 average, 9 HRs, 33 RBIs, 44 runs and 46 hits as a sophomore. Megan Holder (.447) and Meghan Carlisle (.407) were also among the Broncos top-four hitters last year, and they were only freshmen. Nine of the players on Orangeville’s 20-girl roster at state were freshmen. The Broncos will have to replace veteran pitcher Tori Plowman, but Orangeville has never relied on a dominant pitcher, striking out only six batters in its two state tourney games last year including zero in the semifinals. Junior Leah Baker, sophomore Laney Holland and perhaps Janecke will handle the pitching.

The Broncos could make it all the way back to state this year. They could also drop as low as fifth in the NUIC North. “This might be the best conference I’ve seen,” Scheuerell said. “Durand and Pearl City are the favorites with how much they have back, Dakota is never going to be down and Lena-Winslow is much improved with a lot of incoming freshmen who are supposed to be solid.”

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9. Belvidere North

The Blue Thunder (15-11, 13-5) finished a close fourth in the NIC-10 last year, a game behind Hononegah (21-6, 14-4) and Belvidere.

“We will be solid, based on eight returning starters who have yet to play their best softball,” North coach Brian Hilden said.

Centerfielder Alex Blair, who made second-team all-state as a sophomore last year, leads the Blue Thunder. Other top players include McKenzie Culvey and pitcher Becca Schwartz.

“Blair and Culvey give North a standout player at the top of their order and in the middle,” Freeport coach Chad Hersey said. “And Becca Schwartz is only going to improve on the mound for them and force them to the top of the conference.”

10. Harlem

Harlem (26-2, 18-0) has the biggest shoes to fill with Cheyenne Nietz (21-1 last year) now pitching in college for Valparaiso. Alaina Schwanke, an all-conference outfielder as a freshman last year, now steps into her natural position as pitcher. Harlem has been 13-5 or better in the conference every season since going 11-7 a decade ago. It’s tough to bet against the Huskies, but this year it’s a little hard to bet on anyone in the conference.

“I am curious,” Harlem coach Kurt Head said. “I think this race is wide open between five teams this year, more than it has ever been. There isn’t that one dominating pitcher that will shut everyone down. Everyone has pretty good pitching and some pretty good offense.”

Belvidere and Belvidere North, both in Class 3A, probably have a better chance to go further in the playoffs than 4A contenders Harlem and Hononegah (21-6, 14-4). Class 3A Freeport is the fifth team that could possibly contend.

“We could win it or we could finish fifth,” Head said.

Matt Trowbridge is a Rockford Register Star sports reporter. Email him at mtrowbridge@rrstar.com and follow him on Twitter at @MattTrowbridge. Sign up for the Rockford High School newsletter at rrstar.com.