Tommy Norman had no plans on becoming the head softball coach at Dupo High School.
But when he was asked out of the blue to fill the vacancy left by departed coach Greg Pennock, he didn’t see how he could refuse.
The Tigers finished as runners-up in Illinois Class 2A a year ago and were bringing back some key cogs, including former BND Player of the Year Megan Brown. Plus, he knew the members of the team well, having coached some with the St. Louis Fusion select team.
It was that connection, in fact, that landed him the offer from Dupo Athletic Director Jill Puckett.
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“My daughter doesn’t play sports, but she was wearing one of my Fusion sweatshirts at school. The A.D. came up to her and said ‘hey, do you play softball?’” Norman said. “She said no, but that I was a coach.
“When they asked me to take it on I didn’t really hesitate. I’ve known these girls a long time.”
Norman runs his own trash hauling company, Top Notch Disposal in Dupo, but has found the time to lead the Tigers from where they left off last spring in Peoria. Dupo is off to a 7-3 start with losses only against bigger schools.
I think as seniors we're more about being role models instead of just trying to win. Of course we're trying to do both, but I really want to leave something for the younger girls to look up to and help make other girls really want to be a part of this program.
Megan Brown, Dupo senior slugger
While the Tigers bring back Brown and four of her senior classmates, the team is weighted toward youth with 11 emerging underclassmen.
“I got lucky coming into a great situation. These kids have been playing ball a long time,” Norman said. “The key to this season is going to be our sophomores. If they can step up and play at the level we need them to, we’ll go a long way.”
Pitcher Reagan Carner looks to be making that step. The sophomore is 3-0 with a 2.83 ERA. She’s also struck out 20 batters in 17.3 innings.
Freshman Holly Wilson hasn’t had the same success, but has contributed 14.7 innings in the pitcher’s circle and has been taken under the wing of Brown, a four-year starter at Dupo.
“Carner stepped up her game, no doubt,” Norman said. “Holly Wilson just absolutely amazes me because she’s only a freshman, but is not afraid to throw the ball. I’ve let Megan take her under her wing because Megan Brown is a phenomenal coach to these younger players.”
Brown leads the team with 25 innings and a 1.68 ERA after not pitching most of the last two seasons with chronic tendonitis in the biceps of her throwing arm. With Carner and Wilson as her understudy, the Southern Illinois University commit won’t have to be over-used this season, either.
She’s also bounced back from what was, by her standards, a sub-par season at the plate. So far, Brown is second in the region with a .688 batting average and leads the area with eight home runs.
Last season, she hit .333 with five home runs as the Tigers made their run at a state championship. As a sophomore the year prior, however, she hit .596.
Brown attributed the slump to some self-inflicted pressure.
I got lucky coming into a great situation. These kids have been playing ball a long time.
Tommy Norman, Dupo first-year softball coach
“I tried to press. I would go 0-for-3 and I’d press and then over work myself,” she said. “I did more harm than I did myself any good. I just put way too much pressure on myself and when I didn’t perform as I expect to, I’d get really upset.”
The young talent on the team, Brown says, coupled with the Tigers’ success last season has taken some of that pressure to perform off of her. Her focus now is being a senior role model and influencing all of Dupo’s young talent.
“I think as seniors we’re more about being role models instead of just trying to win,” she said. “Of course we’re trying to do both, but I really want to leave something for the younger girls to look up to and help make other girls really want to be a part of this program.”
Other seniors are helping Brown show the way. Taylor Esmon is hitting .533 with six home runs and 14 RBIs and Skylure Barlow is hitting .438 with two home runs and 10 RBIs. She also is tied with Brown with 21 runs scored to lead the Tigers.
Stormy Sellers has been solid filling the void left by catcher Rachael Donald, who is getting spotty playing time as a freshman at Southeast Missouri State University. Sellers is hitting .333 and has driven home 10 runs.
Sophomore Cameron Foster is hitting .378 and has a .439 on-base percentage.
“I was talking to some parents the other day and one said ‘If you would have told me last before our first game that we’d be where we are now, I never would have believed it,’” Norman said. “It’s the way everybody is stepping up. It doesn’t have to be the Megan Brown show. If she doesn’t go 5-for-5, we can still win because everybody else is stepping up. It’s great.”