CAMP POINT, Ill.
It's easy to forgive Jacey Nall for believing the Central softball team's streak of four straight regional championships would end this spring.
Seven graduating players had served as the nucleus for the Panthers' postseason runs and had won 60 games in the previous two seasons. Nall was the lone four-year starter returning this spring. Senior Mallori DeWitt had spent two seasons as a starter, and sophomore Kennady Marlow also made starts, but Central's lineup was new and inexperienced.
Nall was unsure what to expect for her senior campaign.
"It's always part of our goals we do at the beginning of the year," Nall said. "But to be honest, it was so different. I was used to the seniors from last year. It was hard for me to really let loose because it was so different, and I wasn't sure how we'd perform."
Getting swept in early April in a doubleheader 13-0 and 6-2 to West Central Conference rival Illini West showed Central's youth, but Nall saw a different set of teammates after those losses.
Younger players like sophomore Mady Wear started improving, and with Nall's pitching and offense, the Panthers started rolling. Nall, the Herald-Whig Player of the Year for the third straight season, was the catalyst for Central winning its fifth straight Class 1A regional title and leading the Panthers back to a sectional title game, where they ultimately lost 1-0 to Hardin Calhoun.
"Once they saw how (Illini West) was and they were like, 'We really need to step up,'" Nall said. "I wasn't really upset after we lost to Calhoun because I was really proud of how we played."
Nall leaves Central having rewritten the program's pitching records. She has the most strikeouts (1,002), most victories (69) and the lowest ERA for a season (0.49). Nall went 20-5 this season, striking out a program-best 290 in 177 1/3 innings and walking just 42 with an ERA of 1.10.
"Her pitching kept us in almost every game, and we were able to make up the loss of some players from last year," Central coach Amy Hildebrand said. "Offensively, she was our leading hitter, and she was able to get key hits or get a rally going."
Nall becomes only the second player to be named Player of the Year more than two times. Palmyra's Taylor Baxter, a four-time winner from 2007-10, is the only other player to win at least three times.
Nall's accomplishments this year were made more special knowing she had to be the leader for the Panthers and help motivate the younger players to improve. Being that vocal leader on the field was new but something Nall was willing to embrace.
"I played three years, and the other girls, it was their first year," Nall said. "I knew what was going on and had the experience. I knew it would be selfish of me if I didn't take on the leadership part."
Nall said that adjustment came naturally. In school, she was a class representative in student government and also spearheaded projects in the school like making decorations for Homecoming Week.
"I usually always found myself in charge," Nall said.
Now she has left a legacy for future Central pitchers to strive for.
"Her records are going to be hard to beat, and hopefully the younger pitchers strive to be as good as her," Hildebrand said. "She's definitely well known in the community and by younger players, and hopefully she's become a role model for them."