Candi Rogers has been around for some of the lowest depths of the Dixon High School softball program.
She was a 4-year starting varsity player for the Duchesses. As an underclassman, teams that she played on won a grand total of two games – single wins in the spring of 1995 and 1996.
After taking over as head coach entering the 2016 season, Rogers’ first two teams won seven games each campaign. In 2018, however, the Duchesses nosedived to an 0-23 mark.
“There’s only one way to go after winning none,” Rogers said. “When we started off the season, we just said, ‘It’s a new year. We’re not going to keep bringing that up. It’s a new season, so we’re going to start over, and forget about that.’”
Help was on the way. Assistant coach Pam Tourtillott noted her daughter, Sam, was an accomplished shortstop/pitcher and part of strong freshman class that included pitcher/shortstop Elle Jarrett, first baseman Mallory Coley and outfielder Arianne Smith. They would join four returning starters in catcher Taryn Munroe, infielder Leigha Grove and outfielders Ashleigh Blythe and Cheyenne Anderson to give the Duchesses reason for optimism.
“We just wanted to make Dixon softball better,” Coley said. “We just wanted to have a good, fun season for our first year.”
It didn’t take long to realize the nightmare of a winless campaign would not be repeated. Rogers could see right away the level of play would be better than in 2018.
“I kind of knew what we had coming, but I didn’t really know for sure until I saw them the first weeks in practice,” Rogers said. “I was excited, and the girls on the team from last year, they were excited. They knew we were going to win some games this year.”
The Duchesses ended up with a 14-11 record in 2019, a turnaround that few outside the program saw coming. It is the reason Rogers is the 2019 Sauk Valley Media softball coach of the year.
Before the season started, Rogers set about changing the culture. There were team dinners. Instead of practice one day, she had players write down things they liked about the team, as well as things they had issues with. Those notes were shared, and it had a cleansing effect.
“They saw where each other was coming from, and the struggles their teammates were having,” Rogers said. “I think it helped them to understand their teammates were feeling the same things they were, and to kind of put themselves in their teammates’ shoes. It helped us come together as a team and to really be there for each other. I think that was something we struggled with last year.”
The payoff was immediate. In the Duchesses’ second game of the year, they held on for a 3-2 win at Byron. Rogers had an emotional meeting with assistant coach Carie Ramirez afterward.
“We jumped up and down. We hugged. We cried. We were just so excited,” Ramirez said. “It was a very, very good feeling.”
“I just said, ‘After losing 23 games, that feels really good,’” Rogers said.
Those good feelings kept coming. On April 1, Jarrett tossed a no-hitter and struck out 13 in a 4-0 victory against Rockford Lutheran.
Equally impressive was a 4-3 win against Genoa-Kingston 3 days later in which Coley delivered a go-ahead home run in the bottom of the sixth inning over a newly installed fence at Reynolds Field. The Cogs had beaten the Duchesses 10-0 in 2018.
There were winning streaks of five games (Polo twice, Rockford Christian, Oregon and Rock Falls) and four games (Mendota, Rockford Lutheran, Rockford Christian and Forreston). In the first of those streaks, the 15-5 win against Rock Falls avenged a season-opening 10-0 defeat to the Rockets.
Granted, the rematch was played without Rock Falls pitcher Payton Yanes in the circle, as she was recovering from concussion symptoms after taking a line drive to the head a few games prior, but the Rockets were still a formidable squad.
Five wins during that stretch of nine wins in 10 games were via the run rule.
“For us to be giving the run rule and not receiving it, and for us to be hitting the ball like that, it felt so good to turn that around,” Rogers said.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and for the Duchesses, that meant a short stay in the postseason. It was one game, a 2-1 loss to Rochelle on May 20 in a Class 3A Rock Falls Regional quarterfinal. The Hubs had also defeated Dixon 4-1 in the regular-season finale.
So now what do the Duchesses do for an encore?
The immediate goal for Rogers is to get at least some of her players playing summer softball. She guessed about five of them would be doing so, the most in her tenure as coach.
“That makes a big difference,” Rogers said. “I tell them it’s a good idea to get into it because the more work you’re putting in, the more it’s going to benefit you next season.”
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, DHS strength and conditioning coach Andrew McKay is at Reagan Middle School, overseeing weight training for Dixon female athletes. Rogers is there as well, to encourage her girls that attend.
“I feel like our program is going in the right direction,” Rogers said. “It is improving, and I want that. As a former player and current coach, I want it to be a good program.”
With 3 more years of Jarrett, Tourtillott & Co., as well as a promising group of junior high players waiting in the wings, Dixon is poised to take its softball program up another notch. Rogers wants her team to finish in the top three in the Big Northern Conference next year, and win a league title within the next 3 years.
“I think that’s an attainable goal, I really do,” Rogers said.
The school record for wins in a season, 17, was achieved during Rogers’ senior year in 1998. Candi Royster helped the Duchesses reach that level, and the record board contains several names of players from that club.
“I know Candi’s big thing is she wants to break every record that’s on that board,” Ramirez said. “Her graduating class holds a lot of those records, and she doesn’t care. Her goal, ever since she was named head coach, is to beat those records – to shatter them. That’s what we’re looking for these next couple of years.”
They need look no further than the DHS baseball team that advanced to the state tournament earlier this month. The Dukes hadn’t won a regional in program history until breaking through.
“I absolutely hope that we get to that one day,” Rogers said. “It could be within the next couple of years, you never know. If my girls work hard like I know they can and want to, we can absolutely do that.”
When asked what she does outside of coaching DHS softball, Rogers noted she plays and coaches softball. She and her husband of 14 years, Brandon, play in the Friday night co-ed league run by the Dixon Park District.
Each of their three children are also athletes. Kamryn, 11, is a runner, and Candi will accompany her on long runs through the streets of Dixon.
Kinley, 8, competes at the Rookie League level, and is coached by Candi.
Winston, 5, plays tee-ball, and one of his coaches is his father.
“It seems like we’re always at a ballpark somewhere,” Candi said. “We love it.”
HIgh school: Dixon (1998)
College: Sauk Valley C.C. (2000)
Family: Husband, Brandon; children, Kamryn, 11; Kinley, 8; Winston, 5
FYI: 4th-year head coach of Dixon H.S. softball team. … Duchesses went 14-11 in 2019, after going 0-23 in 2018. … Player on 1998 DHS team that won a school-record 17 games. … P.E. teacher at Washington Middle School for past 14 years.