The Oak Park Windmills softball program has played a monumental role in the Oak Park and River Forest community.
High school sports teams thrive when driven by a core group of players who have unwavering chemistry. That has been the case for the OPRF softball team, winning back-to-back state championships with a nucleus of players that played together at a young age. They started young, they bonded together, and they grew both individually and collectively.
Windmills has been the source of this consistent development. A myriad of past and present Huskies credit the Windmills experience for jumpstarting their softball careers.
For the 2017 12U Windmills squad, it's been a year of adjustment -- both for the players and for the coaches.
Every team needs a foundation. A place to start. Despite only one returning player and several new faces with minimal travel ball experience, the 12U girls have laid a foundation that is rock solid with life lessons both on and off the field.
Learn the fundamentals. Be a good teammate. Work hard. This new group of girls has worked tirelessly this season to do these things, in hopes of becoming that future OPRF team that wins another state championship for the decorated orange and blue.
In addition to the new but hardworking 12U lineup, the coaching staff has fresh faces as well this summer. Fran Reckers and Danni Bartodziej -- two former Windmill players -- are forever indebted to the program, and have paid their dues by coaching the 12U team.
Longtime coach Roger Reckers started coaching when his daughter Fran was 7-years-old. Since then, he remains a dedicated coach and has been on the Windmills board since 2007. However, Roger was particularly excited for this summer solely because of his plans to pass the torch to Fran and Danni.
"These two women are uniquely qualified for this coaching assignment," Reckles said. "They are current college players so they are continuously learning about the game from their current coaches. But they are also great communicators with the young girls and I trust that model to continue in our organization."
Fran Reckers, a 2014 OPRF graduate and current softball player at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, is thrilled to be with the Windmills this summer.
"It's special coming back as a collegiate student-athlete because I feel like I'm passing on the values of the Windmills organization to the next group of players," said Reckers. "This group of girls is so eager to learn and I'm happy to be an inspiration to them since I've been in their shoes. Danni and I are the first collegiate coaches to come back as former players. It's an honor and I hope more people follow this path."
Danni Bartodziej, a current player at Northwood University in Michigan and former Nazareth High School standout, offers similar insight about coming back to help the youth. "I grew up with coaches that really impacted my life so my ultimate motivation is to be that mentor for these girls," said Bartodziej. "It feels amazing to be living out my dream playing collegiate softball, but it's almost better being a coach for the team that made me who I am today."
Both Reckers and Bartodziej see the recently formed roster as a blessing in disguise. Although the chemistry isn't there yet, Danni believes having the same group of girls together beginning at age 12 is the foundation that's invaluable in the long run.
"All of my years of travel ball were with Windmills and same with Fran," Bartodziej said. "Our mission is to teach them the importance of playing for each other and always being a good teammate. That is what builds chemistry."
The idea of softball being "more than just a game" is illustrated impeccably in the Windmills organization. Reckles alluded to her team's notable work ethic.
"Softball has helped me in life more than on the field," Reckles said. "It's taught me about belonging, perseverance, and sportsmanship. Danni and I have the opportunity to teach these lessons to them at a young age. It's a privilege to coach girls that all work hard despite having different abilities."
Windmills has been a trustworthy feeder team for girls who want to play not only at local high schools, but also at the next level. Reckers and Bartodziej were loyal to the Windmills and thus were rewarded with the opportunity to play college ball and receive an education.
The 12U Oak Park Windmills (9-13) are a young team. It's been a year of trial and error and constant learning. Nonetheless, each girl is bought in and contributing in a variety of ways. These contributions were evident recently, as the team placed second in the Glenview Thunderbolt Classic. With their persistence, combined with the guidance of two experienced softball minds in Reckles and Bartodziej, the sky is truly the limit in the coming years for this group.
Reckers and Bartodziej hope more collegiate players will give back to their childhood teams. Building the foundation is what leads to a dynasty. The 12U Windmills have the potential to be the next crop of players dancing on the mound in East Peoria.