SYCAMORE – Anna Criswell vividly remembers the summer day in 2016 when she met Teddi Hacaga.
Criswell’s travel softball team, the Kishwaukee Valley Storm, was in need of a catcher for a weekend tournament, and Hacaga was referred by local coaches to help fill in.
“She wore all Rochelle stuff,” said Criswell, a Sycamore graduate. “Purple socks, purple pants, purple shirt – I was like, ‘Who is this girl?’ ”
Two years later, Criswell and Hacaga – a Rochelle graduate – are best friends, soon-to-be college roommates and both are key pieces on the Storm, which hopes to compete for a national championship later this summer.
Criswell’s and Hacaga’s friendship is one of the many bonds formed through the local youth softball program, which includes four teams for the 2018 season in the 12-and-under, 14U, 16U and 18U age groups. Storm program director Stephen Heide said he’s hopeful to add a 10U team in 2019.
“The Storm has helped bring out the best in me athletically and with friendships,” Hacaga said.
Storm 18U coach Jim Varga said it’s been a joy to watch Criswell and Hacaga’s relationship develop. They will attend Illinois State this fall.
“It’s the reward we get,” Varga said. “There are kids who want to play at the next level, and we have plenty of those. But there are other kids who go on to college and develop friendships from the Storm. They’re all over the country now, but former teammates stay in touch.
“Anna and Teddi come from rival schools, but they were brought together here.”
It didn’t take long for Criswell to look past Hacaga’s Rochelle gear and accept her as a teammate and friend.
“She’s so spunky,” Criswell said. “She fit in right away at practice.”
Varga is hoping Criswell, Hacaga and the rest of the program are ready for the weekend’s Storm Dayz Tournament at the Sycamore Park District. He said the Kishwaukee Valley Storm is hosting Storm Dayz for the 18th consecutive year, and the tournament is the largest of its kind in the state.
Kishwaukee’s 18U team carries a 10-6 record into Storm Dayz, which is held from Friday to Sunday. However, games were rained out Friday. The team went 4-2 and finished in third place during the eight-team Germantown Invitational last weekend in Tennessee.
Varga has been satisfied with his team’s performance considering the competition it’s been facing – the Storm narrowly lost to Germantown, which has two Southeastern Conference commits on the team, he said.
“We’ve been hitting the ball very well and have been adjusting to different pitching quickly,” Varga said. “We have a never-die attitude. We picked each other up last weekend. They played well together and communicated. We’re competing with some great teams.
“Teddi played shortstop and did a heck of a job. Anna made some great plays in the outfield running down some balls.”
Through 16 games this summer, Criswell leads the Storm in runs scored (21) and home runs (two) and ranks second in RBIs (14), behind Genoa-Kingston product Madison Wagner’s 15. Hacaga is averaging .250 at the plate with nine hits and eight RBIs.
Although neither girl is playing softball at the collegiate level, Criswell and Hacaga will continue their bond off the field as roommates at Illinois State. Criswell said she plans to explore playing club softball at ISU, while Hacaga earned a spot on the Redbirds’ cheerleading squad.
“My life would be very different without this program,” Criswell said. “I started when I was 7 years old. That’s more than half my life. Pretty much all my friends are from this team.
“I know for a fact I wouldn’t know any of them without the Storm.”