In Dawn Engebretson’s eyes, there’s something obviously missing from the walls of the Rockford High School gym.
While other sports have banners recognizing past conference and section champions, the Rockford softball coach is keenly aware there is no softball banner. The closest the Rockets have come to a championship in Engebretson’s 16 seasons is a couple of section finals losses more than a decade ago.
That could change this year. Coming off their best season record in 10 years, the Rockets are poised to take off. With a lineup of veteran talent, expectations for championships and banners are sky-high.
“We’ve been building something,” Engebretson said. “Two years ago, we didn’t have any seniors. Last year, we had two. Now, we’ve got girls ready to do great things.”
As with most softball teams, Rockford’s hopes hinge largely on the player toeing the pitching rubber. Senior Lexi Majeski — at 6-foot-3, an intimidating figure before even throws a pitch — is finally healthy and has been working all winter on developing a third pitch to accent her fastball/changeup repertoire.
“She’s had some trouble with her lower back, but when she’s on, she’s tough to hit,” Engebretson said.
Driving Majeski is the recognition that this will be her last season of competitive softball. She is determined to show that she can get the results to match her potential.
“They don’t play softball at the school I’m going to go to next year, so I want to make this year great,” Majeski said.
Rockford had its winningest season in a decade in 2012, winning 13 games before losing in the second round of the Class 2A, Section 5 playoffs. By all accounts, the season was a success, but the feeling that itcould have been even better was something that bothered Majeski and fellow captain Ashley Dick.
“We didn’t start games as well as we could have,” said Dick, a second baseman beginning her fourth year as a starter. “Especially on the bus going to away games, we wouldn’t be as focused as we could have been.”
Together with the three other seniors on the roster — third baseman Katelynn Pederson, catcher Amanda Thingvold and outfielder Madison Read — the two captains have made preparedness the buzzword for the season.
“We need to set some time aside and calm ourselves down before games,” Dick said. “We have so much talent and potential that if every girl team works a little bit harder, we can be very good. This team has been built for this year.”
If only Mother Nature would play along.
The Rockets are ready but haven’t been able to show what the excitement is all about.
“This weather is getting extremely old,” Engebretson said. “Who knows when we’ll be able to play?”
Adding to the anticipation for this season has been a grant Rockford received from the Minnesota Twins Community Fund to improved its fields. New dugouts and a new fence await, but have yet to be used.
“That’s another reason to be excited,” Engebretson said.
For now, the Rockets, like every other softball team in the metro, is doing what they can to stay ready for the day when they will finally be able to play outside.
In addition to the usual batting, fielding and pitching practice, the team rented the Plymouth Creek Center Fieldhouse for a day.
“They loved that,” she said. “Actually being able to field fly balls. It was great.”
Engebretson has broken up the monotony and fostered team unity with occasional play days, with games designed with a softball theme. Those contests, Engebretson said, have told her a lot about the kind of team she has.
“This team is probably the most competitive group I’ve coached,” she said. “We play a game in the gym that is like [team] handball, only with a softball and gloves. Most years, maybe three or four girls are playing and the others stand around and watch. This year, everyone is screaming for the ball. It’s fun to watch.”
Majeski said that this team is the tightest group that she has played with and feels that the bonds within the team will be the key to success.
“We have each other’s backs and there’s no drama,” Majeski said. “Not having drama behind the scenes helps a lot.”
She has even found a way to put a positive spin on a delayed start to the season.
“It gives us extra time to practice,” she said. “You know how, in most years, you play your first game and you’re not sure you’re ready? Well, we’ll be ready this year.”
Rockford’s lack of past softball success — only two state tournament appearances, none since 1990 — has affected the local perception of the team, something that Dick is eager to change.
“People don’t expect us to go very far,” she said. “I can’t wait to show them that we’ve turned things around.”