By Al Zipsie

SOFTBALL

Over the last 15 years, Orangeville and Dakota have combined to win 14 regionals. Once again this year the teams are the favorites to battle for the NUIC East Championship.

Last season Dakota won the Conference, but it was Orangeville who beat Dakota in the Sectional semifinals and advanced to the Super-Sectional.

While Dakota lost some talent, they also have all state sophomore shortstop Tabytha Toelke and all-conference pitcher Grace Sutherland and outfielder Toni Stubbe. Orangeville returns it's only senior returning first-team performer Katie Boomgarden and talented sophomores Tori Plowman and McKayla Riemer.

Amboy has ace hurler Bailee Highbarger. Forreston is led by all-conference shortstop Alexus Houston along with Brycelynn Smith and Sam and Taylor Greenfield.

The battle for the West could be between Eastland and Lena-Winslow. Eastland has it's two time all-conference battery back in pitcher Emma Norton and catcher Jenna Green. The Cougars started the season unbeaten after 11 outings including an 11-1 win over Freeport Friday. Eastland also won a Lewiston tournament.

Lena-Winslow has a pair of first team all-conference players back in pitcher Zoe Johnson and infield/outfielder Madi Schultz.

Other top players in the NUIC are Tia Clark of Pearl City and Galena's Samantha Stoffrogen. Durand boasts pitcher Katie Nevdal, the NUIC East MVP last year.

BASEBALL

Forreston will defend their NUIC East title they have won the last four years. Last year they won their first ever Sectional championship.

Aquin has won three straight Regional titles and on the Cardinals heels. This year Aquin loses five first team all-conference players to graduation while Forreston graduates four who were all-conference. The Cardinals do return a pair of all-conference picks in pitcher Mitch Heinz and pitcher/shortstop Braiden Fyock, who just played Saturday in the basketball Rising Stars game. Both Aquin and Forreston are off to good starts on the season, but the East should be more balanced this season.

In the NUIC West, Eastland will defend the title they have won the last three years. The Cougars do lose senior pitchers. They have all-conference players returning in Kaden Henze, Tucker Welch, and Lane Christians.

River Ridge/Scales Mound will challenge for the title with two solid southpaw pitchers in Tayden Patterson and Micah Knauer along with Ben Crist and Jacob Speer.

Pearl City. Pitcher Zach Lieb and three-sport athletes Braden and Brock Smargiassi.

Other top NUIC  players are Milledgeville's Nate Rahn and Carson Boyer. Polo's Justin Young and Braiden Soltow. Amboy's Mitch McLaughlin and West Carroll pitcher Aiden Sullivan.

Warren/Stockton has returned all-conference outfielder Noah McGivney.

Lena-Winslow's senior Ian Kuehl is not on the roster after being a unanimous first-team pick last year.

"We are very young this year, we will heavily count on four seniors for leadership and stability," said Lena-Winslow coach Nick Werhane. "

One of those seniors was second team all-conference last season in Braden Almasy. The Panthers started the season 2-2.

"My younger players have a lot of potential but lack experience'" added Weand. "My hopes are to compete each and every game and improve every game."

TRACK. BOYS,

Polo/Forreston Coop will again be the favorite in the NUIC and better a 7th place team finish at state.

Leading the way is Polo's Brady Webb, he set the all-time NUIC record in the long jump last year with a leap of 22'10 1/2. He hopes to best that mark as a senior. He was sixth in the state last year. He also hopes to place in the state in the 100 and be part of a strong sprint relay team which brings back Webb, along with Evan Kelsey and Cailean Davids. A fourth should step up to make that team strong. Last year it was A.J Christensen, the state champ in both hurdle events. This year it may be his younger brother Dom, a junior who also is a strong pole vaulter.

Ethan Phillips who went 40'9 in the triple jump and solid in the discus. Garrett Badertscher in the shot put and Jace Coffey in the discus who medaled with eighth place in the discus 150'7 and the junior also in the shot put. In the distance Daniel Hanson and Bennet Soltow in the hurdles.

Isaiah Bruce already signed to play football at Iowa, only a junior. All state in football. In track was part of sprint relay state team and placed 7th in the state in the shot put 51'10 showing he is both quick and strong. Bobby Brown is a return8ng state qualifier in the long jump.

Dakota has Nolan Lentz 400 meters and Josh Clark in the 800. Lentz close to a school record in the 400. Luke Schwarze in the shot put and discus. Jordan Ayres in the long jump and triple jump.

Amboy has state qualifier Thomas Stamberger in the 800 meters and Brady Becker in the shot put.

Galena distance runner Sam Mickelson made state in 2A.

Pearl City returns Jayden Kempel who made state and set a school record in the 300 Intermediate hurdles.

Durand/Pecatonica senior Max Sager ready to go for state medals in the spring relays in the 100, 200 and 400. He made state last year 8n all three events including the finals and ninth place in the 400 meters. He ran a :50.997 in the prelims.

For NUIC boys and girls track records go to Facebook NUIC track records.

TRACK. GIRLS.

Last year the NUIC had state champions in Emily Offenheiser in the shot put and second in the discus. State champ Carmen DeVries of Lena-Winslow in the 400 meters, and medaled third in the triple jump and fourth in the long jump.

Rebecca Waite of Milledgeville was a medalist in all four events, the 100, 200 and 400, and member of sprint relay. In 2A Galena's Paige Christopher placed in the long jump and high hurdles.

Those athletes all graduated and are running track in college.

This year it may not be the superstar list of last year, but plenty of talent returns.

Breya Christopher a senior is back in the high jump for Galena/River Ridge/East Dubuque. The entire state 800-meter relay team is back in Julia Finazzo, Mayson Marty, Lizzy Eaton, and Morgan Wills. Riley Finn made state in the 400.

While Waite is gone the Milledgeville Coop will be solid again Olivia Sturrup in both the 100 and 200. Alyvia Woodard in the long jump. The 800 relay team returns with Sturrup, Sage Walrath, Lydia Coatney, and Woodard.

Amboy returns three of four girls who made up the 1600 meter relay in Ashley Althaus, Sidney Corocran and Brooklyn Whelchel. They will be looking for the fourth person to fill that with Altaus back in the 400.

Alyse Southard of Pecatonica in the distance events. She just scored 14 points in the Rising Stars basketball game Saturday for the small schools.

TWO DAKOTA GRADUATES FINISH COLLEGE CAREERS

Two Dakota 2014 graduates just finished up outstanding college careers.

Josh Alber in wrestling at Divison l Northern Iowa and Brett Benning basketball at Augustana.

Alber, a four-time state champion was the only wrestler to never lose or tie in Illinois high school wrestling history. He qualified for the NCAA Nationals all four years at Northern Iowa. He finished his career with a sparkling 32-7 record as a senior. He won his first match at the NCAA finals, only to drop the next two.

Benning finished with three solid years at NCAA Division lll Augustana. As a senior Benning averaged 11.0 points a game. Augustana was 26-4, losing in the Sectional round of the tournament. As a sophomore Benning was on the National runner-up team. In three years at Augustana Benning played on teams with a combined record of 75-19.

Brett's father, Brian Benning was inducted into the Illinois football coaching Hall of Fame. He last coached basketball at Dakota. But in football led Orangeville to a state championship in 1989 and then went on to turn around the program at Harlem. Benning is also in the slow pitch Hall of Fame as a player.