Like any good assistant coach, Zack Sigler was letting his boss vent.
And like any good assistant coach, Sigler had good news for Butler Community College softball coach Doug Chance once the venting was done.
“It was the same day we found out a pitcher that was supposed to come here wasn’t coming, and (Chance) was on his way back from Arkansas,” Zigler said. “So I let him vent, then I told him he wasn’t going to believe who just filled out one of our online questionnaires. The timing ended up working out really well.”
Chance made Sigler give him the number on the questionnaire and called it immediately.
It was Sydnee Eck — the same player who had turned her back on college softball one year earlier, after after three straight state titles at Andale-Garden Plain and three All-Metro selections. She wanted back in the game.
“We brought her in for a visit, she said she missed it but needed a little longer,” Chance said. “She asked me not to tell anybody because she didn’t want a lot of people hounding her, so I said ‘OK, no pressure,’ just backed off and gave her a little time to make up her mind. A week or so later, she said she wanted to do it so I had her come over and throw a little bit.
“So we knew she could pitch, but the thing that’s surprised us has been how well she could swing the bat.”
Eck has been doing both at a very high level for Butler (18-3), the No. 1 team in the NJCAA rankings headed into Wednesday’s doubleheader against Seward County at East Park in El Dorado. She’s the Grizzlies’ top pitcher at 12-3 with a 0.81 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 77 1/3 innings. She also has a .383 batting average, 23 RBIs and is tied with Kate James for the team lead with seven home runs. The Grizzlies have won 14 straight games and are going for a fourth straight trip to nationals.
Eck spent last year as a student at Kansas State, staying involved with the game tangentially — through pitching lessons, through a trip to watch her friend, Kelsey Stewart, play for Florida in the College World Series, through coaching her younger sister Kasidee’s summer team.
“It felt like it was something I still needed to go out and accomplish,” Eck said. “A goal that was still out there. Back to the part of me leaving, I just had some bad experiences. As soon as I started school last year, though, I was thinking about playing again.”
When she did decide to come back, her return was met with some initial skepticism from her future teammates.
“I was angry about it, at first,” said James, a Maize product who was the Jayhawk West freshman of the year last season and has commited to play at Arkansas. “I thought she was going to be drama, or not a team player or not want to work hard and I was totally wrong. She’s been amazing from the very first day. She’s a great teammate, I can’t imagine not having her here.”
Eck’s velocity had stalled out in her time off — when Chance put her on the clock to begin with, she was throwing the ball at 58 mph, which is decent, but not great. By the time they clocked her again, before Christmas break, she was up to 64.
“And she didn’t like that at all,” said Chance, who won his 400th career game Sunday against Barton. “So she started working even harder. We had to pull her back a little bit because she strained a muscle working out. I’ve had to tell her that the velocity is just a bonus because she can spin the ball three different directions, throw offspeed pitches and has pinpoint accuracy.”
And as Eck has come back to the game, college scouts have come back to her. She committed to Creighton at the end of January and will have three years of eligibility with the Bluejays.
“I love playing for Doug, love being on a team again,” Eck said. “It’s a team sport, so I’m out there trying to help them out as much as I can. It’s great when we all get recognized.”
“I’m kind of nervous to be so far away from home, but I think it’s going to be a really good experience,” James said. “It’s going to be a lot of other Division I players, so I’m looking forward to the competition.”