[This is my column in the May 29 issue of The Commercial Review.]
There were plenty of sniffles and even a few tears when the Jay County softball team returned to the dugout following its post-game talk Tuesday.
It was the last time the best softball team in school history would be on the same field together.
Although the Patriots saw their season end prematurely, there are plenty of reasons for the girls to hold their heads high.
And they start with the 23-2 record.
Jay County rattled off 16 straight victories to start the season, winning all but three of them by four or more runs. Five of them were shutouts.
After losing the first game of a doubleheader 6-3 to Adams Central, the Patriots turned around to beat the Jets 4-3 for their 17th victory, tying school record for wins in a season.
The loss to the Jets was no fluke, however. Adams Central played in the state finals each of the last two seasons in Class 2A before being bumped up to 3A this year.
Adams Central wasn’t so lucky this season, as it lost 12-3 to Mississinewa in the opening round of the Class 3A Sectional 23 tournament.
Then, a new streak began, as they went on to set a new school record and win their next five games, including an opening round clubbing of Homestead in the sectional tournament.
Anyone who watched them would notice the pitching prowess of Larissa Boles.
The junior had an 18-2 record with a 0.54 ERA in the regular season. She struck out nearly 10 batters per game, and hit the double-digit mark in 14 of them. On top of that, she only walked 30 batters, which is a ratio of one free pass for every six batters she sat down on strikes.
On the offensive side of the ball, Jay County improved in every offensive category but one. The 2014 Patriots scored 60 more runs than they did last year, had 56 more RBIs, hit 21 more doubles, two more triples and smacked nine more homers, all with just four more total hits.
They also outscored their opponents 232-40.
Their team batting average improved to .379 from .330.
Boles led the team with a .541 average and nine home runs — one off the team total from last season. Jay County had three hitters (Catherine Dunn, Courtney Finnerty and Boles) batting .400 or higher, and three more (Katie Aker, Katlin Petro and Chelsea Tighe) were not far behind. Aker’s 36 RBIs lead the team and ranks her 31st in the state.
But it wasn’t just the starting nine who contributed.
McKayla Norris and Kai-Li Baughman stepped up in spot starting roles, hitting their first career home runs. They also rose to the occasion by pitching and playing in the outfield respectively, as the Patriots faced adversity with injuries and off-field issues.
Petro, a senior, said Norris and Baughman don’t get the respect or recognition they deserve.
“I have to give them a lot of credit,” said Petro, one of the team’s three captains. “In my opinion, that is probably one of the hardest things to do. Those girls put in the same time and effort that everyone else did and then they have the responsibility of staying warm during the game in case we need them.
“One thing that a lot of people didn’t realize is how exciting the bench players were during sectional to cheer us on. They made comments on how they were pumped to cheer us on and encourage us, which they did during both games.
“That means a lot to me and is awesome to see them so excited to be a part of the team even though they aren’t the star pitcher or hitter.”
What has made the team so special, Petro said, was how close the 14 girls have gotten as the season progressed.
Chloe Steigerwalt agrees.
“What stands out the most to me personally would be the bond we have had as a team throughout the season,” the junior left fielder said. “We grew up with each other and learned to trust each other with every play and every run that was scored.
“We had faith in each other and our coaches. We made each other proud and I think that’s what stands out the most to me.”
For coach Doug Arbuckle, the most upsetting thing about Tuesday’s loss is it means the end for a very special year.
“I’m disappointed the season couldn’t continue for these girls because they put their heart and soul into it,” Arbuckle said after Tuesday’s 1-0 sectional semifinal loss to Huntington North. “That’s what’s hard about it.
“To finish 23-2, if you told me that at the beginning of the season, I’d say ‘we’ll take it.’ I’m just so happy for the way these girls came together as a team and performed.”
“For Chelsea Tighe, Katie Aker, Katlin Petro and Mikayla Gross, those four seniors — three of them have been with me for four years — they’re just super girls and I know they’re going to have nothing but success in the future with whatever they decide to do.”
Steigerwalt added to Arbuckle’s sentiment, noting she has played with that group of girls for a number of years and they have helped her grow on and off the diamond.
Boles praised the quartet for its leadership qualities.
“They were the greatest leaders and role models on the team,” she said. “It’ll be completely different without them next year.”
Some crying was to be expected Tuesday after the team fell short of its goal of bringing home the school’s first softball sectional title. But as those tears dry and time passes, the Patriots should look back at the season not with disappointment, but with pride.
They have played their final game together, but their 23 wins will leave a legacy for years to come.