By Blake Baxter
Sydney Shubert didn't start having second thoughts about the end of her softball career until it had ostensibly come to a close.
But once it happened, she knew she wasn't ready to let it go.
Last May, Shubert was Heartland Community College's sophomore left fielder and No. 2 hitter.
At the plate, she hit .438, recorded an on-base percentage of .486, slugged .477 and led the team with 14 stolen bases. In the outfield, she made 52 putouts, had two assists and only committed two errors in 56 chances.
It would have been a strong final campaign to put in the books before she transferred to a four-year school to focus on academics. But after the Hawks fell short in a 7-5, season-ending loss to Danville in the Region 24 Tournament, something didn't feel right.
"As soon as the game ended, I instantly started bawling and hugging my teammates," Shubert said. "And after we shook the other team's hands, I walked up to my mom right away, and I was like, "I'm playing next year – no question about it.
"There's no way I can stop."
Shubert knew who to reach out to next: EC coach Debi Neff. Neff, the former longtime East Peoria coach, had tried to recruit her out of Canton High School and had kept in touch throughout her junior-college career.
She was delighted when she received a text message from Shubert that said, "Can I please come for a visit?" I'd love to be on the team."
"I was very excited," Neff said. "Being from the former Mid-Illini Conference, I knew a little bit about her before she came. It's fun to watch Mid-Illini athletes continue their career. Plus, I knew she was coming from a great program with Coach (Bob) Barnes.
"I knew exactly what I was getting."
Eleven months later, everyone in Red Devil nation is happy with the way things played out.
Ten games into the season, Eureka – a team without a single senior on the roster – is 7-3 and 5-1 in St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play.
With Shubert playing center and batting second, the Red Devils ripped off six straight wins after dropping a season-opening doubleheader at North Central, and pulled off a dramatic eight-run comeback in the seventh inning to secure a split with SLIAC foe Fontbonne on Wednesday.
Coming into Wednesday's series, Shubert was batting an absurd .704, slapping and bunting 19 hits in 27 at-bats. She came to earth a little bit with a 2-for-5 and a 1-for-5 performance against the Griffins, but still delivered a crucial hit during the team's game-winning rally.
"Usually, when you have a young team, it's hard to do that, because I would think we'd get down on ourselves," Shubert said. "But that's not how this team is. We can definitely fight."
Shubert said she wasn't struggling to get the ball down; it just kept going to a different person every time.
"I was little bit nervous (in the seventh) because I wasn't doing so hot," she said. "I just knew I had to get a hit somehow."
Once a right-handed batter and infielder, Shubert made the switch to slapping and playing outfield as a freshman in high school so she could get a spot on varsity.
She was a little hesitant at first, but her speed made her a natural. Once she puts the ball in play, she's a tough out. And if the ball's hit in her direction in the outfield, it's not very likely to fall.
Just ask Blackburn, which saw Shubert make an athletic snag at the warning track in the Red Devils' home opener. Shubert thought it might have ended up on the other side of the fence otherwise.
She's made 20 putouts and two assists in 22 chances so far this spring, complementing her team-high 21 hits and three stolen bases.
Transitioning from junior-college ball to playing for EC, Shubert said, wasn't too difficult. It was a greater time commitment, but one she appreciated. She can tell the extra work she put in the weight room has made a difference. And she said that Neff and the rest of the team welcomed her with open arms.
Getting to play with a few former respected Mid-Illini Conference high school rivals was another welcome twist for everyone involved.
Juniors Erin Smith (Dunlap) and Gabby Wood (Limestone) both previously pitched against Shubert, and junior catcher Morgan Osborn (Washington) vividly remembers what it was like when they weren't on the same side.
"Playing against Sydney all through high school was hard," Osborn said. "She is triple threat at the plate with bunting, slapping and slap-hitting. Aside from offense, she is stellar on defense. So, when I found out Sydney was coming to Eureka, I was excited. I knew that she would be a huge addition to our team. She has done nothing but prove how great she is since coming to Eureka."
"I would say she was the best catcher in the whole conference," Shubert said of Osborn. "I don't think I ever stole on her once. She's a great player. I liked playing against her, and now, I like playing with her."
Shubert had another Eureka connection before she came here in the form of cousin and former EC basketball great Hayley Reneau. They played softball against each other in high school, and Reneau was able to give her a taste of what life at EC would be like.
There was a subtle sign of how quickly Eureka has become Shubert's home before she played her first home game at Sweitzer Field.
When former longtime EC coach Karen Sweitzer tossed the ceremonial first pitch, it was Shubert waiting to catch it at home plate and greeting her with a hug. A kinesiology major, Shubert has had Sweitzer as her professor for most of her classes.
"I've only been here for a semester and a half," Shubert said. "But we know each other pretty well."
Such is life 'Neath the Elms.