SPORTS | July 28, 2021
Germaine Padilla, the head softball coach at Taft High School, always knew that Taft was a “sleeping giant” in the Chicago Public League (CPL). And, in 2021, the Taft Eagles proved him right as the varsity team captured their first CPL City Championship since 2006 and their first IHSA Regional and Sectional Championships in school history.
Padilla always had big expectations when he took over the softball program six years ago, having worked 22 years in CPS and seven years at Taft.
The softball team had only around 40 student-athletes try out over the past few years and, in 2021, Taft softball had three levels of play and had 70 student-athletes try out for what would become an unforgettable season.
Having begun his career at Lane Tech, a softball powerhouse, Padilla knew that Taft would be the perfect opportunity for him to build a program into something special.
“I wanted to go to a school where I [felt] like we can establish a program that will represent CPS and the state well…I always felt that Taft was that program,” Padilla said. “I wanted to raise [the players’] expectations…It’s not just a city [championship] for us; we have a chance to win regional championships and sectional championships. We gave our team those expectations, raising the bar. Will you become the next team that every team is measured up to?”
Taft was five days away from the start of their 2020 season when it was canceled because of COVID-19. Players and coaches had to scramble to try to keep in touch and work toward building a great team in the hopes that they would be able to play in 2021.
Current senior Olivia Y. was not worried about the lost season and knew they had all the right pieces to come back even stronger in 2021.
“We were all really excited…The build-up and momentum that we had going into two years ago helped us to get to that next level to be city champions,” Olivia said. “Once we came together, it was like we never skipped a beat.”
In order for 2021 to be as special as the team knew that it could be, Padilla and Assistant Coach Morgan Brauer did everything they could to connect with their players over Google Meet to begin to build a sense of comradery, community, and family.
Accountability over Google Meet can be very difficult, especially in sports education and preparation, but Brauer had confidence in her players to do the right thing.
“Just having a lot of trust in our girls, that they’re going to do the work [on their own], that they’re going to try to get hitting done [etc], I think was a really big component as well,” Brauer said.
Padilla had a bold vision, and for the first time he felt like someone had “chopped him down at the knees,” and he couldn’t have the contact with the girls that he wanted. However, it never stopped him from building the team culture he wanted, even if it was over video conferencing.
“We had [virtual] meetings, scavenger hunts, Thanksgiving dinner together [over Google Meet]…We just did little things to keep them intrigued and involved…keep a sense of family,” Padilla said. “Then we got into our [online] workouts, and the numbers were better [online] than [they normally were] in person!”
When the team finally had the green light to start their season, 2021 senior captain Kiana T. said “it was like letting out a breath you didn’t know you were holding in.”
Rising junior Dehne S. believed in the team’s “sleeping giant” mentality. And even with her freshman year wiped out by COVID-19, she knew what kind of program she was joining at Taft.
“No one really believed in Taft, that we were going to get this far,” Dehne said. “Regardless of what other people think, [the coaches] would say we know you can get there and you know you can get that far, so just push yourself and get there.”
The Eagles won their first 10 games, scoring more than 10 runs in each of them.
But on April 28th, the win streak was snapped as Taft fell to rival Lane Tech, 2-0, and then lost to top team Whitney Young, 9-8, less than a week later.
The Eagles, however, were not deterred.
“I remember the score was 9-8 [against Young], and I remember afterward thinking we can run with the big dogs,” Kiana said. “If we have an off day we can run with them and if we’re on our game we can beat them.”
The Eagles used this confidence to finish league play with a 9-2 record and secured a second-place regular-season finish. The team beat Back of the Yards and Northside College Prep in the first two rounds of the city playoffs, setting the stage for a rematch with Lane Tech in the city semi-finals.
“I told our girls, no one believes in you but us,” Padilla said. “Until we go out and beat our conference rival Lane Tech, no one is going to believe we are real.”
The Eagles would go on to win their semi-final matchup, beating Lane 11-3.
“Being at Taft all these years and never being able to overcome that step [beating Lane], I think that was really big for us,” Kiana said. “[Our mindset was] we are going to win, we want to win and we need to win in order to go where we want to go.”
“Once we beat Lane, what is stopping us? We felt weightless,” Olivia said. “Coach Brauer would say – any given team, any given day, you can come out on top.”
With bigger goals in mind, Taft quickly turned around to prepare for the city championship against Whitney Young, who finished the season ranked as one of the top ten softball teams in the state.
Despite the cold weather and rainy conditions, the Eagles jumped out to a 2-0 lead early on and captured the city championship with a 3-1 win.
“Every single girl on Taft [said] we’re going to play, we’re going to win. We came ready to play. We need to play today,” Kiana said. “We had the mojo about us that we’re going to win. We had that swagger that we needed that day. We had the confidence and the drive.”
“It really was the best feeling,” Dehne said. “The excitement but also not knowing what just happened… that feeling of confusion. Wait…we actually just won? It was such a good feeling. I don’t feel like that feeling will ever happen again unless we win again.”
The city championship victory started a state playoff run that had never been seen before at Taft.
A win over New Trier and two rematch wins over Lane Tech and Whitney Young captured the school’s first regional championship and a win against Maine South secured Taft its first sectional championship in school history. While the season ended with a super-sectional loss against eventual state champion Marist, Coach Padilla had one more exciting surprise up his sleeve.
Padilla worked with the Chicago Cubs to have Taft recognized at Wrigley Field and to have one of their players throw the first pitch before a Cubs game. The whole team agreed it should be Olivia, who was unable to participate in the season because of a leg injury.
“I was so stoked. The day I found out, me and my dad went to the park and measured out how far it was going to be, took a baseball instead of a softball, and when I got out there, it was a trance,” Olivia said. “They announced my name, all of our names…I can’t even describe in words how amazing it felt. Once in a lifetime.”
Coach Brauer knew that this was the perfect ending to their incredible season.
“For the most part, a team ends their season with a loss,” Brauer said. “To bookend this amazing season with this opportunity was the best end to it ever.”
A storybook ending to an incredible season is all that could have been expected for this Taft softball team.
Kiana, who will be playing softball next year at Concordia University in Wisconsin, had a message for her teammates as they try to continue the momentum from this year.
“I want to leave the message of defend what we built because it took a lot for us to get here,” Kiana said.
Padilla always said that his players should play with a smile and that he wants their best memories in high school to be on the softball field.
This message was received loud and clear by his team, as Taft looks to continue to be the top team in CPL softball. Taft is no longer the softball “sleeping giant,” but now the “softball giant” on the Northwest Side of Chicago.