ARGENTA — Before last season there wasn’t much Argenta-Oreana’s softball team could hang its hat on.
Over the years, the program had never been to state and never won a sectional or a regional.
In the high school gymnasium, the softball team's banner sat empty.
“We didn’t have anything on it," senior third baseman Makennah Hollon said. "It was 'Softball,' with nothing on it. They had to put more football banners up there because we had done such a good job in football that season."
Moving the softball banners in favor of the football banners didn’t sit well with the team.
“(When it was taken down) we were like, wow, we are going to go to state now to get it put back up, and sure enough, we did," Hollon said. "It's back up now but I think it was a psychological thing for the players that we really needed to get something on there."
Led by then-freshman pitcher Cassie Newbanks and her sister, junior catcher Cami Newbanks, the Bombers went on a run that landed them in Peoria at the Class 1A state tournament. Argenta lost in the semifinals to eventual state champion Windsor/Stewardson-Strasburg, but came back to defeat Spoon River Valley 3-1 to take home the first state trophy in program history.
As the Bombers look to build on last year, the team is significantly different after losing six seniors and their head coach, Angie Ridgeway.
"We are all a little heartbroken about Coach Ridgeway leaving but we are so thankful to have the memories with her that we did," Cami Newbanks said. "It helps a lot to know Coach Hollon and the team bonding is already here. There aren't any major changes to live up to and it has been smooth going so far."
Jeff Hollon knows returning to state isn't a forgone conclusion.
"This year there's a target on our back," he said. "A lot of people are thinking we’ve got to rebuild a bit because we lost six seniors and all six were key players. But with the group of girls we have now, I think if they work together as a team we can do something.
"We of course have a great pitcher-catcher combination and that is key in softball. You go through from last year’s lineup to this year’s lineup and you ask where are my weak spots and there are a few but they are going to fill fast."
One of those gradating seniors was pitcher Lydia Hays, who backed up Cassie Newbanks on the mound. This season it will be freshman Michelle Hollon stepping in when the Bombers' ace needs a rest.
"We are going to lean on Cassie a lot, but I don’t want to kill Cassie and overwork her and drive her right into the ground," Hollon said. "In doubleheaders we are going to have split that up with Michelle."
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The whirlwind experience of a freshman pitcher leading a team to the state tournament was a challenge for Cassie last season.
"Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for it," she said. "Our first goal was just to win regionals and we really didn’t expect to go much further than that. I was just doing the best I could. (This season) I have been working on my strength and speed."
Cassie was outstanding in the team's opener — a 15-4 victory over St. Teresa -- allowing two hits over five innings and striking out nine. She even hit a home run, which is usually her sister's calling card.
"I was honestly not expecting a home run," Cassie said. "I swung and missed and coach told me to drive it out to right field and the next pitch I drove it over the fence.'
The unspoken connection between the sisters is undeniable.
"They are a great duo and they go together so well," Makennah Hollon said. "It is so crazy how they can read each other's minds. They just click together so well."
"After signing, so much stress was lifted off my shoulders," she said. "I can actually just play and not worry about other coaches watching me."
Cami said she's encouraged by her team's early performance this season.
"We were just pouncing on the ball and getting hit after hit and manufacturing runs pretty easily," she said. "(Last season) was one heck of a ride but now we are trying to build on that to where we can make it better and where we don’t have those downfalls. We have some girls in some new spots and we can build on last year’s success."
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Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten
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