The past two seasons have seen the Whitnall softball team reach some important landmarks.
In 2012, the Falcons claimed their first WIAA regional championship in years, and this season, they tied South Milwaukee for the Woodland Conference East Division crown, their first league title in softball since 1997.
Senior Lizzy Menden and sophomore Liz Thon stood at the center of both accomplishments.
This season, Menden hit .452 with 33 runs scored from her leadoff spot, while Thon batted a sizzling .562 and drove in 32 runs from the third spot in the lineup.
Both also provided leadership on and off the field and were elected team captains, certainly a rare honor for a sophomore in Thon's case.
For their achievements and leadership, the two are on the 2013 NOW Newspapers All-Suburban team, with Menden receiving that honor for the second straight season.
Menden and Thon were also first-team All-Woodland East, and Thon was named the Falcons' most valuable player.
"Lizzy was the heart of our team this year," head coach Tom Hickman said. "In fact, she took home our Team Heart award. She was always the hardest worker in practice and would do whatever was asked of her.
"She was the silent leader type who led with her actions and not her voice. Her play was always top notch and her ability to come up with the big play in the clutch situation is something that simply cannot be taught.
"One of her greatest qualities was her ability to connect with everyone regardless of class. It didn't matter if it was a freshman or senior; she would go out of her way to make everyone feel welcome."
Engaging the team
Menden was in a natural leadership position as a senior, but Thon found herself in a different situation, being asked to show leadership with upperclassmen.
"I didn't know how to approach that at first," she said. "I was new to the leadership role, and it took time to adjust. I just showed leadership on the field and by example."
Hickman said she handled the task with aplomb.
"It's not easy for a sophomore to try and tell upperclassmen what to do, and the great thing was that she didn't do that," he said. "She simply got them engaged and worked right alongside everyone else."
Both players spurred the Falcons' offense, Menden as a sparkplug and Thon as a consistent run-producer.
"Lizzy started a lot of our rallies this season," the coach said. "(She) was our third hitter, a spot that is usually reserved for the best hitter on the team, and she clearly showed she is in that category."
Thon's most eye-popping statistic was that .562 average.
"After last season, I worked on my hitting," she said. "Coach told me to be more relaxed at the plate. I just saw the pitches coming and took a nice, easy stroke."
This particular season, though, nothing came that easily. Inclement weather prevented teams from practicing outdoors and wiped out many early games, forcing them to play six to eight times per week later.
"It was tough," Menden said. "We had to be creative with our practices indoors. We had to be flexible with games: 'Are we playing tonight? Are we not playing?' We just had to work with it.
"Playing six, seven games a week, we had no time to take a break, but everybody gave everything they had."
Tied for the title
The Falcons played well enough to contend for the division title, but due to postponements, had to win two games at Cudahy on the final day of the regular season to tie South Milwaukee for the title.
"We went in confident and just wanted to play the game we know we can play," Thon said.
Whitnall won both contests to finish 10-2 and earn its share of the crown.
"That was our goal from the beginning of the season," Menden said. "It was something we were all reaching for."
Now Menden is on her way to Marquette University this fall. There is no NCAA softball program, so she will play intramurals and major in biomedical engineering.
Thon will be a junior at Whitnall and will be one of the key players on next spring's softball team.
"She will be a cornerstone of our program for the next two seasons," Hickman said. "It's scary to think what she'll do for an encore after hitting over .560 this year. The sky is the limit for Liz."
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