HASTINGS — It will go down as a memorable softball summer for the Hartington squad that found its way into the state tournament last weekend at the USA Softball complex in Hastings.
Yes, the Hartington squad went three-and-out at state, but when it’s a first-time trip in approximately a decade-and-a-half, showing up was half the battle.
They did it despite not having the most impressive win-loss record, but the girls found a way at the right time.
Hartington dropped games 6-3, 8-2, 10-0.
“First game, we looked nervous and like all year, we couldn’t get the bats going,” Hartington coordinator Brice Grutsch said. “By the third game out there, we were out of gas. I wish we could have performed better, but I was pleased we had girls able to do it. It was a good first step.
“The girls fought hard, worked hard, and it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Even when they were down in the last game, they were out there giving the best they could. I didn’t feel that we were out of our league.”
It was a hot weekend, but the team battled like it had been there before.
“What made them successful and what makes them so tough? For that, I think you have to go back a few years,” Grutsch said. “While I know Hartington has had some successful teams in years past, from the time I got involved in it, it seemed to be on a downward trend. That’s why I took the coordinator position. To see if we could get it back headed the right direction.
“Six years ago, we had an enrollment of around 45 kids, give or take a few. That’s in all age groups. We had 8U and 10U every year. Anything above that was pretty hit and miss.”
A year ago, it was more hit as the organization sported its first 18U team and thus began the journey that ended up in Hastings.
“If you go back four or five years, I had this core group of girls that’s going to state this year, playing up on a 14U team at districts just so we had enough girls to have a team: Even though most of them were 11 or 12,” Grutsch said. “Our enrollment this year was 108 kids in all age groups, so things appear to be on an upward trend. All the credit for that goes to the incredible group of parent-coaches I have and also to this particular group of players.
“They are the ones responsible for not letting this program fail. So, you want to know what makes them tough? All these years of slowly building and grinding through hard times. That’s what makes them tough. They’ve gone from getting completely blown out every game to competing every game despite still being a young 18U team.”
Grutsch said the team only won a few games but got the “right” ones as they qualified for the Class D tournament.
“While long term you’d hope to compete at a Class C level, I think D is about right for us now,” Grutsch said. “We have 18 girls from four towns and five schools. We have a rule that we never make kids choose between softball and other sports, jobs, vacations, workouts, or any of the thousand other things these kids have going on.
“We’ll always be flexible and work around it. That helps our participation numbers, but it usually takes us awhile to get things all put together and playing well.”
In fairness, the team also didn’t have the whole roster together until about four games in and the early season contests got the team trend ing toward developing chemistry.
The pitching was solid at state, according to Grutsch, and the defense was “good enough to win.”
Of course, the one bugaboo that bogged them down was inconsistent bats and that struck again in Hastings.
“At the 18-age group, you could play against a pitcher going to college to a really young pitcher who was throwing basically soft toss,” Hartington player Mani Lange said. “It was basically just an inexperience kind of thing.”
Grutsch was proud of what this team evolved into as the summer progressed.
“I wanted people to know where this core group of girls started and where they are now,” Grutsch said. “They are important in helping us build a program back up. That’s what makes them successful.
“Granted we didn’t win this trip, but I don’t feel out of place. Good signs of progress.”
Only one player – Jordyn Steffen – would age out for next summer.
“We’ve had good retention, but you never know,” Grutsch said.
Lange enjoyed the way the season wrapped up.
“We pulled it together more toward the end,” she said. “We are kind of like a club team because we pull from all around, and in the beginning, we were figuring out where everyone should play and what their strengths are.
“We did pretty good for our first trip down to state in a while, but there is still room for improvement. We got more comfortable with each other and there was more trust. We need to get more pitchers – we have one really strong pitcher. We need to tie up all loose ends.”