Laura Harms just may be the most successful female athlete the Kankakee area has ever seen.
After a dominant career in softball and basketball, Harms began her college career at the turn of the century at Kankakee Community College, where she was an All-American on the diamond each season.
In two seasons at Bradley University, she practically rewrote the record books, before winning a pair of championships in the National Pro Fastpitch league, earning herself a retired number with the Chicago Bandits.
And for the past decade, Harms was one of the brightest coaching minds in the state during a tenure at Bishop McNamara that began in 2011. She helped lead the Irish to a 2013 IHSA Class 2A State title after a 37-0 season, one of the best seasons in IHSA softball history.
All told, Harms and the Irish posted a 247-73 mark, winning seven regionals, five sectionals and three trips to state, while also winning All-City each of her nine years.
As someone who sported Boilermaker red and white as a prep start herself, Harms turned heads when she accepted the vacant position at McNamara prior to the 2010-11 school year. But by the end of the decade, Harms entrenched herself in the record books of the two longtime rivals.
“My first year coaching, I was also coaching travel ball and my catcher, Olivia Donley, was the catcher for Bradley,” Harms said. “At All-City, I wore a Bradley shirt under my Mac shirt because we always joked that I would always bleed red.
“I think, over the years, it’s gotten a little less red and a little more green just because all of the great girls and their parents.”
Harms and her family made the decision to move to California last month, after her wife, Chelsea Cantillo, accepted a new job.
In addition to the recent birth of their daughter, Amaya, and the current coronavirus pandemic, the move wasn’t easy, but felt like it was the right time for her and her family, particularly after the 2020 softball season was canceled.
“We had never talked about moving across the country or anything like that, but over the course of the pandemic and raising a 1-month-old at the time, we weren’t really leaving or doing anything, but then, in April, Chelsea came in and said, ‘Hey, I got a job interview,’” Harms said. “We just kind of put it off, but then she did the interview, then came a second job interview, so, then, we started talking about it a little bit more.
“Her whole family is from [California], her mom is one of eight kids and she has ton of aunts and uncles and everything ... we finally made the decision in late April.”
Harms told her Irish players early in May she would be leaving, but promised to stay and see out the 2020 season if it ever resumed, although that never came. For McNamara Principal Terry Granger, it was somewhat fitting Harms’ tenure ended with a canceled season because of the life lessons she taught her players.
“Laura spent a lot of time talking life after softball. We talked about this as she left and this started unfolding, but one day, softball is gonna end and there has to be more to your life than softball,” Granger said. “She really promoted that fact … and what a year to live on that laurel since our seniors didn’t get to play.
“She was staying in contact with them and she said they were prepared, they knew it was gonna end someday, although they didn’t think it was gonna be like that.”
Aside from the 20-plus win seasons, which came in every season of the Harms era, Harms will be remembered for what became known for annually raising money to fight cancer. Beginning in 2012, the Irish began playing charity games to raise money for the disease after Harms’ mother, Cathy Harms-Wood, was diagnosed herself.
“My mom was an awesome supporter. She knew the girls by their names and whenever she could come, she was there,” Harms said. “She even came when she started getting sick and when she was really sick. The girls knew she was sick and going through chemo, so they started to have more of a relationship with her and understand her.”
Harms’ mother passed away in 2016, but the tradition has continued on. Money raised goes toward the Relay for Life and the American Cancer Society.
“She would cry every year when the girls would go up to her and give her a hug and that was really important to her,” Harms said. “After she passed, and they continued to do that, they knew how much it meant to me and my mom.
“They’re more than just softball players — you can teach them more than just softball and you understand it’s not just about the game.”
Gillian McDermott, a 2019 Irish graduate who played for Harms, said that those were the games that meant the most to the team, largely because they meant so much to their coach.
“Any time we had the purple day games, those were the ones you wanted to win not only to just win, but because how much it meant to her,” McDermott said. “To support her mom’s legacy is phenomenal and that purple game stands out as something that’s impactful to not just Bishop McNamara, but the entire community.”
Lifelong lessons from 2013 season
In terms of on-field success, not many teams that have ever stepped on the field can say they dominated the way Harms’ 2013 squad did, finishing the season as undisputed IHSA Class 2A champions with a 37-0 record, including a five-game stretch of clobbering opponents by a combined 67-2 margin to begin their postseason push.
Always mindful of the lessons that come with the sport she loves, Harms still remembers what she told the team after they were crowned champions.
“I told the girls at the end, ‘You guys are probably never going to be a part of something like this again and you better appreciate it and take it all in because this doesn’t happen,” Harms said. “It was a pretty amazing feeling for everybody to be a part of.”
Jaelen Hull, the 2013 team’s ace, who like Harms, went on to play at Bradley University, said the work ethic Harms instilled in her and her teammates and the lessons that came with it have stuck long after softball.
“The thing that stuck out to me the most was the work we put in off the field to result in what that season was,” Hull said. “I remember the hard practices, the team dinners, the bonding, what we all went through together as teammates and with Laura as our coach.
“She always talks about doing the little things right until you don’t do it wrong anymore, and that’s where those things came in, was those practices. What allowed us to make that run were all of the little things, and I think about that a lot.”
The other half of the Irish battery from that season, Jenna Stauffenberg, said that the biggest lesson she took away from Harms came a few years later, during her time at Valparaiso.
“The saying we used during our season was ‘everything happens for a reason,’” Stauffenberg said. “I had my son [Jackson] my junior year of college and I remember talking to Laura about it and she said, ‘Everything happens for a reason, Jenna. If it works out, it works out, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. There’s some other story that’s meant to be.’
“I went back to play my senior season after having him, and I remember being at one of the games and I looked up in the stands, and there was Laura holding Jackson in the stands at the game.”
As successful as her girls have been while playing for her, it’s seeing her former players carry out the lessons she tried to teach them that means a lot to Harms.
“I have so many girls that have gone on to either play at the next level, or just gone to be successful ... and I feel really fortunate that I’m a small part of their success,” Harms said. “They can look back and say they played for me and what I taught them.
“I always wanted to be someone that made a difference for these kids.”
The next chapter
Those lasting impacts are what Granger immediately realized he would miss the most when Harms first told him that he was leaving.
“My stomach sunk, not because just the success on the field, but she’s the type of person I want our kids to be around, in the sense on and off the field,” Granger said. “We talked several times after that phone call and she wants the program to continue to be successful ... the last time we spoke before she left, I reiterated that I want nothing but the best for her as well.”
McDermott, who seems to be more the exception than the norm in regards to her decision to not continue her softball career into college, said that the lessons she learned on the diamond are as relevant as ever.
“I wasn’t going to play college softball, but there are lots of little things you can learn and incorporate into everyday life,” McDermott said. “Just as much as she’s a phenomenal softball coach, she’s as good at helping girls grow up and learn things that a lot of coaches don’t emphasize or talk about.”
The Irish are turning the keys of the program over to a well-accomplished coach in his own right, Joe Tholl. But Harms’ impact will still be felt, whether through the postseason banners, or her father, Keith, who Harms said will still make sure to catch the Irish in action, although maybe not in his daily scorekeeping role he used to hold.
“He wants us to be happy and do what’s right for our family,” Harms said. “And he said he’ll still go to games. Maybe not every game, but he’ll still go to games.”
Moving during a global pandemic was a bit unconventional for Harms and her family, especially considering most of her friends and family had yet to meet young Amaya before they left.
But now that she’s gone, Harms knows what she wants her players to remember.
“I just hope they understand that there’s a bigger picture in life than softball,” Harms said. “That’s what I’ve always tried to teach ... I just always want them to be more than just softball players.
“I hope that sticks and I hope they’re successful in their lives to come.”
A new mother in a new state, Harms doesn’t have immediate plans to coach in California. But that day may come again.
“I think eventually I’ll coach,” Harms said. “Everybody asks why I never coached college, but I just fell in love with coaching high school kids, just at that age where you can really make an impact.”