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  • Writer's picturepeters1119

Built for power: Szakacs and the slugging Wolves keeps coach Saunders coming back for more Boone Grove softball

WESTVILLE -- Her mom Desiree (McDaniel) played at Merrillville during the school's softball heyday, catching for Leslie Malerich, who went on to pitch for the 2004 Italian Olympic team.

Her dad Steve Szakacs was a heavyweight wrestler and football player at Lake Station.

Is it any wonder Mercedes (Cede) Szakacs can inflict damage on a softball?

"I've always been known as a power hitter," the Boone Grove junior said.

Westville's Kierstin Vargas managed to keep Szakacs and the slugging Wolves in the confines Friday, but the first baseman singled and doubled to drive in three runs as BG downed the Blackhawks 7-2 in the Porter County Conference tournament quarterfinal.

"She places the ball really good, so I was trying to focus on the outside," Szakacs said of Vargas. "The first time we played them, she really threw the outside. I struggle on it, so really trying to make sure that was the pitch I go for, trying to go oppo. It was actually a very scary game, but it worked out for us (4-2)."

Boone kept the angst to a minimum this time, scoring twice in the first on Szakacs' single and three times in the fifth, when Alyssa Lanos singled in a run and Jordyn Botma doubled in another, scoring on a relay misplay.

"They're just a good team, fundamentally sound, well-coached, they all play travel ball," Westville coach Mark Dineen said.

That includes Szakacs, who lives in Portage but has attended Boone since eighth grade.

"We were looking at Wheeler and Andrean, but we'd have to pay a lot to go there," she said. "Wheeler's 10 minutes, Boone's 20 minutes. For the extra 10 minutes, we don't have to pay anything. I really like it and the drive's pretty easy. I knew (center fielder) Maria (Otero) our eighth grade year. That was COVID year. We had to stay in one class and she was in that class, so it was a lot easier to make friends."

Her eighth grade was actually the only time Szakacs played her mom's old position, but she moved to left field as a freshman.

"She caught for me. She didn't do too bad, but she didn't want to catch," Boone coach Ron Saunders said. "You make due with what you have at that level. .

Szakacs shifted to first base as a sophomore and it's become her primary position, with her seeing some time at third as well, depending on the lineup.

"Last year, we lost our first baseman," she said. "Fall season, I started playing first for my travel team. Since we didn't have one, I was like, Ron, I can play. I've been doing good ever since, so I stayed there. I actually was terrified of third when I was little. I wouldn't play there. That's why I liked outfield. I would have more time for the ball."

With her commitment to Valparaiso University in the fall, Szakacs is the fourth Wolves player set to play in college. Catcher Emily Veschak has signed with Drake, pitcher Natalee Meinert is going to Lewis and Mariah Atteberry is bound for St. Mary's (Notre Dame).

"I really love the school," she said. "It's really close to home. I get stay home. It's smaller D-I, so it's still D-I without it being like every day type stuff. I just like how I could come in freshman year and play. I don't have to wait a couple years to play. I always wanted to play in the Big Ten, but once I got older, I realized how much more work it would be. I wanted to focus more on smaller schools. They offered pretty good for (me) being a positional player. It was really high, 75 percent. Their teaching program's really good. I want to be a teacher. It just checked all the boxes of what I wanted to do."

VU had its head coach, Meaggan Pettipiece, resign in early April after a shoplifting arrest, and was replaced on an interim basis by Laney Jones, who recruited Szakacs for the Beacons.

"I feel fine. Nothing for me changes," Szakacs said. "I hope she is (head coach), but she's still going to be on the coaching staff."

The Wolves improved to 15-4 with the win, heading into Saturday's tournament semifinals.

"I love where our team is at," Szakacs said. "We're in such a good place, like we haven't been before. I feel we have a really good shot to get out of sectionals, possibly regionals."

The cycle of talent continues for Saunders, who has four seniors in Veschak, Meinert, Atteberry, Llanos, but plenty to build around going forward with Olivia Treece and Botma, a left-handed pitcher, making big impacts as freshmen. Botma worked five innings against Westville for the win with Atteberry fanning the last five Blackhawks over the final two innings.

"(Botma) was a little nervous, but she did well," Saunders said. "We also had Mariah warmed up if Jordyn had gotten in trouble. She's been lights out. She hasn't given up a run all year. We just can't afford to take her off of third. She's hit .600 in conference."

The Wolves played errorless ball behind them with Llanos, Zoey Powell and Chayse Duerr all flashing the leather.

"Westville hits," Saunders said. "(Defense) is really our strong point. We don't make many errors. We don't give up too many runs making those errors. Sometimes, that's a big difference in a game."

The steady influx of good players makes it hard for Saunders, 69, to give up coaching, despite health scares, most recently cancer, though he has made some concessions as far as pre-game warmups and coaching bases.

"I'm a lot better than I've been the last two years," he said. "The cancer's gone. The radiation is out of my system. I don't coach the bases too much anymore. I get too hyped. I've got great assistant coaches. I stay in the dugout, I make the changes I need to make. They run it for me. It's pretty much, you guys go ahead and do it. I'm trying to get used to that. I'm used to hitting infield and outfield." Saunders is in his 14th year as head coach.

"I love the game," he said. "I love working with the kids. It's therapeutic. These four seniors, this is six, seven years with them, since middle school. Even the freshmen, I've had them for three years. I really want to get through this freshman class -- I'll be 72, I'm already semi-retired -- and see how I feel."

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