Pitcher Krystal Levitske won’t forget the experience of playing against the best teams in the nation. And catcher Lauren Engels will long remember the way her teammates pulled together.
The two sophomores were both starters for the University of Illinois team in the National Club Softball Association’s 2019 World Series played May 16 to 19 in Columbus, Ga.
Levitske, of Willow Springs, is a Nazareth Academy graduate, while Engels and freshman Natalie Metsch, both of La Grange, are Lyons Township High School graduates.
The World Series featured the 16 best teams in the nation from 140 teams in the NCSA. Illinois was 22-0 and the top seed going in.
The Illini finished 5-3 in the World Series. They went 2-1 in pool play and then won their first game in bracket play before losing to Michigan, 5-0. That put Illinois into the losers’ bracket. Illinois caught fire, winning twice in the losers’ bracket, before losing 5-3 to Penn State.
That loss on the morning of May 19 eliminated the Illini from contention. Illinois shared fifth place in the World Series with Clemson, which lost to the eventual champ Navy.
Levitske won’t soon forget her second trip to the World Series.
“I love that tournament," Levitske said. "It’s amazing. It’s an opportunity to play teams from different states … That’s really exciting, and to play in warmer weather, obviously.”
Unlike the cold and wet weather of Chicago, Columbus was dry and sunny with temperatures climbing into the 90s.
Levitske pitched against Navy, Michigan, Oregon, Air Force Academy and Penn State. Navy, which wound up repeating as World Series champ, had the toughest lineup, she said.
“Something we did well this weekend was getting wins as a team, everyone contributing to each of those wins," Levitske said. "That was my favorite part."
Another highlight was pitching all seven innings to beat Air Force, 9-3. A loss there would have eliminated Illinois.
“The Michigan game was a hard loss," Levitske said. "Winning the NC State game, coming into Air Force, made things a little easier. Obviously, there was a lot of pressure to win that game, but we were all in it to win it. So, I didn’t feel as much pressure because I knew everyone was there to win."
Although she and Engels graduated in the same class from St. Cletus School in La Grange, they never played softball together until they joined the Illinois team.
“I think we work really well together, and it definitely feels like I’ve been catching her more than two years,” Engels said.
Engels said she “had so much fun I didn’t want to leave. Even going back to watch the championship game, [the evening of May 19] I was so happy and excited for the winners.”
About half the team stuck around to watch Navy beat Ohio State twice to win the World Series.
Engels was impressed by the Navy team.
“Their mindset is completely different than any of the other teams," she said. "They don’t let anything faze them. It happens and they let it go. We, obviously, try to do that, but it’s a lot harder for us."
She wondered if Navy’s military training “benefits them and made them hard to beat.”
Engels is a catcher because she enjoys “being in charge and having a view of the whole field … and seeing how each pitcher throws her game.”
Engels said the 12-hour drive from Champaign “was really fun” along with staying with her teammates in a Hyatt Place hotel. She enjoyed how the team pulled together on and off the field.
Metsch, who also played softball at Lyons Township and in the La Grange Little League, pinch hit twice. She singled and scored in a 16-0 rout of Northeastern, and flew out against Air Force.
This was the 13th NCSA World Series and the 10th straight played in Columbus. Illinois won the first two NCSA World Series in 2007 and 2008. Club softball teams are run by the students, not the university.
The teams played at the South Commons Sports Complex in the shadows of the softball stadium used for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games based in Atlanta.
In past years, final round games were played in that stadium, but it is being renovated this year and was not available. These three Illini, and their returning teammates, are planning to play in the stadium in 2020.