Minooka coach Mark Brown said that from the onset of Sara Novak’s high school career, he knew she was a special talent.
I knew when she first came up as a sophomore that she was going to be special,” Brown said. “Some players, the ball just sounds different coming off their bats. She is one of them. Has a beautiful swing, she is a natural.”
Novak tied an IHSA state finals record while playing for the Indians utilizing that same swing this past spring when she went 4-for-4 at the plate in the title game against St. Charles East. She won both games as a pitcher inside the circle for Minooka while combining to throw nine innings of two-hit, one-walk ball. She also fanned 12.
Overall, Novak hit .427 for the season, including five doubles, a triple and seven home runs. She had 30 runs scored and 27 RBI. As a pitcher this spring, her compiled numbers are: 90 2/3 innings, 75 hits, 34 walks, 133 strikeouts, an 8-2 record and an ERA of 2.92.
For helping lead the Indians to the Class 4A State Championship this year, the Wisconsin-bound Novak has been named the Morris Daily Herald 2013 All-Area Softball Most Valuable Player.
Glad to be there
For just the third time in the history of the Morris Daily Herald readership area, a softball team won state this year (1992 Morris, 2010 Coal City). That on it’s own is enough to talk about for a long time. Novak said that getting the chance to spend time with her teammates in that span of days surrounding the tournament was the most memorable thing.
“I think it was spending time together with the team. Staying in the hotel and bonding,” she said. “That was a fun experience and it just added to the overall experience of being at state and playing in the state tournament.”
Part of that experience involved gong to the theater together, going miniature golfing and even go-karting.
“Before the championship game and before warming up, we did mini-golfing and then we went go-karting. That was fun,” Novak said. “We then stopped for lunch at Potbelly’s in Bloomington, got on the bus and drove down to the Bradley softball field where we warmed up. Then we showed up at state ready to play.”
Novak said the atmosphere down at Eastside Centre in East Peoria was like no other.
“It was nerve-wracking. It was not only the game, but the atmosphere,” she said. “There were so many more people, so many more fans that you want to go out and put on a good show in order to help your team. it’s a big deal because it was the big time, I guess.”
So, just how did the team manage to stay so focused in the face of that?
“Before both games, Coach Brown set us down and told us there was no reason to be nervous. He said that the reason we were there was because we were playing well,” Novak said. “That it’s the same game we had been playing our whole life. he told us not to change anything just because it’s state. He wanted us to go out and treat it like another game against another good team.”
Making their mark
Minooka, of course, turned out to be the best team in Class 4A, beating Elmhurst York 6-3 in the semifinals and annihilating St. Charles East 14-3 in a game that ended in the sixth inning by the run-rule. It was certainly a game for the record books.
“It’s unbelievable. Looking at the programs they handed out down there, and going through it before the games, we were looking at the records. We were talking to each other and were like, ‘that is cool’,” Novak said.
“Then it kind of occurred during the game, because we scored a lot of runs, that there must be some sort of a record being broke here. We were pounding the ball. After the game, coach (Amy) Saelens stopped us and said that we had broken all sorts of records. For runs, hits, home runs … I can’t think of a better way for all of us to go out and leave our mark.”
In exchange for its record performance, Minooka was given a giant trophy to commemorate the event. A trophy which will have their names engraved on it forever.
“It’s like we said, yeah we’ve made history, but it hasn’t sunk in yet,” Novak said. “It’s going be weird coming back to the gym and seeing the banner up there — Minooka softball 2013 state champion — knowing that its something the school is going to be looking back on forever. It’s crazy.”
Not many observers would have had the Indians pegged as soon-to-be champions. After all, they didn’t even win the Southwest Prairie Conference this spring, losing six times to league foes.
“For a while there, we were not playing our best softball. It seemed like we couldn’t string our hits together. Runs that shouldn’t be scoring were scoring and runners that shouldn’t be on base were on base,” Novak said.
“Going into the season, we thought that we could do better. We had a lot higher expectations as far as the season goes. I think a lot of it also had to do with the weather. We were never able to consistently into the groove of playing. But once everyone got rolling, we came together and finished the season playing real well.
“Softball is a lot more fun to play when its nice out. You just get more comfortable. But there was a point when we were playing bad we kind of said, ‘We need to play better, we need to play better, we need to play better,’ and I don’t remember what game it was but you could tell that players were starting to get frustrated. That’s when we really bucked down and said ‘We are better than this’. I don’t think we lost any confidence or any faith in each other, or in the team or in the coaches.
“if I had to pick a game where I felt that we were really staring to play better, it was against Plainfield Central the second time we played them. We still lost a few games after that, but that was the first time I can think of when we played softball up to our capabilities.”
The Plainfield Central game was a 7-2 victory on May 7, and though the seventh and eighth losses of the season were still on the horizon, it was pretty much smooth sailing from there as Minooka closed the season on a nine-game winning streak.
Some think that the hardest part of Minooka’s state run was the regional and sectional championships they played. In fact, the Indians beat Lincoln-Way East just 3-1 and then beat Plainfield Central 4-2 to capture the sectional.
“Those were the best example of what I would call playoff softball. Close games where you have to manufacture runs. I think we played really clean,” Novak said. “I can’t think of any mistakes that we made. I think both teams executed in those two games, which is why people forget about them. It’s because there is nothing to note as outstanding or a big turning point. We just were plodding along and playing steady softball. We manufactured runs, played good defense and came out on top.”
Of course, then there’s the epic, historic, grandiose and bigger-than-life game against Lockport. A game in which the Indians trailed by nine runs and were on the verge of losing by the run rule before storming back and winning 15-14 in the sectional semifinal. Novak thinks that both the regional and sectional got them over the hump so to speak.
“That’s one of the things we were thinking about coming in. All three years that I was on the varsity it’s been that we had won the first regional game and then lost the regional championship,” Novak said. “We started off by saying, ‘Well, let’s beat Joliet West’ because they beat us last year. Then we said we can beat East — ‘Let’s do it and win a regional’ — because we hadn’t done that yet. After that we said that each game is making history. So we felt we might as well go out and win the next one.”
On to Wisconsin
Novak is now headed to the University of Wisconsin where she is thinking about majoring in business. She is getting a scholarship to play softball for the Badgers to play infield.
“I know in the recruiting press release, that coach was planning on using me as a left-side infielder, but I know anything can happen and I’ll do whatever I can do to get an opportunity,” Novak said.
Though she had a down year by her standards as a pitcher, she still set the Minooka school record for strikeouts in a career. So, is pitching something she might con tune to pursue at the collegiate level?
“As of right now I don’t think so. I know that there are at least one or two pitchers who are coming in in my recruiting class and at least one from the year before this. As well as their returning ace, but it is something I am going to keep working on,” Novak said.
Just like the rest of her game, no doubt, according to Brown.
“Sara led our potent offense in almost every offensive category. She leaves Minooka having set four school records including most home runs and most strikeouts,” Brown said.
“Sara has been a force in the middle of our lineup for the last three-plus seasons. She is a leader on and off the field and such a great, very coachable young woman. She did great things in an Indian uniform. It will be fun to see what she is going to do in a Wisconsin Badgers’ jersey now.”