Oak Forest’s Naegele no longer overlookedSouthtownStar softball player of the year Oak Forest's Emily Naegele in Oak Forest, Illinois, Wednesday, June, 8, 2011. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 21, 2011 3:18PM
In the summer of 2008, Oak Forest coach Paige Stryczek invited a handful of girls from her frosh/soph softball camp to come back a week later and work out with the varsity.
Incoming freshman Emily Naegele wasn’t among them.
“I honestly didn’t notice her so I didn’t ask her,” Stryczek said. “She didn’t stand out, if you can believe that.”
Stryczek shook her head and smiled. So did Naegele, as she sat in the Bengals’ home dugout discussing the path she has taken to becoming one of the Oak Forest’s greatest softball players ever.
“I was a little disappointed all the rest of my friends were invited to varsity camp and I wasn’t,” Naegele said of the unintentional snub.
“It made me want to prove myself.”
Naegele became the only freshman to earn a varsity starting spot in 2009. She was the team quarterback behind the plate in helping lead Oak Forest to its first state title.
Today she’s got one of the most feared bats — and arms — in Illinois, and a constant thirst to keep proving herself.
The numbers turned in this season by the Jenny’s Steakhouse/SouthtownStar Softball Player of the Year were, in a word, staggering.
Naegele’s batting average was .634, her slugging percentage a whopping 1.178. She smacked 11 doubles, four triples and 12 home runs, driving in 56 runs, scoring 47 and stealing 22 bases.
Behind the plate, she posted a .997 fielding percentage (1 error) and threw out a stunning 71 percent of would-be base stealers.
“She’s definitely one of the best ballplayers to come through here,” Stryczek said. “She’s one of those athletes who can put a team on her back and carry them to great heights. She did that this year.”
Naegele’s ticket to the Oak Forest varsity as a freshman was actually punched during basketball season.
“Coach saw me being aggressive (on the floor),” Naegele said. “One time I was wearing a Lemont Rockers t-shirt and she was like, ‘Do you play for the Lemont Rockers?’ When I said yeah and told her I was a catcher, she asked if I’d like to catch for Emily Norton during her pitching lessons.”
Norton, a sophomore, was already on the fast track to becoming one of the area’s best pitchers.
“I was terrified,” Naegele said. “Oh, my gosh. I didn’t even really know Emily, and at first it was scary the first couple of times I went.”
“Em and Em” hit the ground running, quickly gaining a reputation as one of the area’s best batteries. Oak Forest went on to post a 31-4 record, and capture the Class 3A title. That season, Norton earned SouthtownStar Player of the Year honors, while Naegele was a regular contributor all season and came up huge with a two-run triple in the state semifinals against Burlington Central.
“I didn’t even really realize how big of a deal it was,” Naegele said of winning the state title as a freshman. “I didn’t know the magnitude of the game and how hard it was to get there every year. I just happened to be on this team that everyone was in it together.”
Naegele’s sophomore campaign didn’t end with another state title, but it did see a big jump in production, with six home runs, 27 RBI, 25 stolen bases and a .511 average.
As her bat was getting quicker and quicker, her arm got stronger and stronger, thanks to some help from Emily Norton’s former batterymate — and older sister.
“I used to stand up straight when I threw, but Carly Norton helped me last year to make sure I stayed low and exploded through my throw,” Naegele said.
Naegele’s right arm effectively took away a part of almost every opponents’ offense in 2011. Out of the 175 runners that reached base against Oak Forest, only seven dared make a move for second base. Naegele threw five of them out, and picked off four others who strayed too far off of first.
She was a pitcher’s best friend.
“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Norton said. “I knew that when something was going wrong on the field she was going to have my back. She’s got that bullet of an arm. I know she’s got a chance to get anyone out at any time.”
Naegele and Norton are to be reunited as a battery in 2013 at Radford University. In the meantime, Naegele won’t be resting on her laurels as a team leader at Oak Forest.
“Every year you want to make yourself better,” she said. “That was my goal for this year, to do better than last year.”
A better Naegele?
Opposing pitchers and runners dare not imagine it.