Earning a spot in post-season play is something of a tradition for the young women at Kelly High School. For 18 of the last 19 years they have captured the Class 2A district title. This year a 21-6 record earned them that title again.
Rhonda Ratledge was a high school freshman in 1985 when the team took their first title. Today, she is their coach and she credits their winning ways to more than tradition.
"I think it is a determination," she said about the players' winning ways. "Most of them have been playing together since T-ball and we have a good community program that focuses on fast-pitch softball."
It also takes practice.
Even before the fall girls softball season begins, team members begin honing their skills, practicing twice a day. Once school starts, practice typically runs from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
On the first day of practice, Ratledge and her assistant, Melanie Heuring, watch players closely. Hand-eye coordination is key to good play, Ratledge said.
"Of course, we are looking for thinking skills and quick reaction time, too," she added. "Defensive wise, we want good throws, good hands; offensively, if they can connect with the bat. If they've got the basics down then we can go from there."
Most of the girls are far beyond the basics, Ratledge acknowledged. The strong community program means many have played together for years and the summer program also puts them together with other girls from across the region, giving them experience on the field.
The coaches work with the players to perfect skills. Occasionally, she added, they must work to break bad habits, which is one of the most difficult tasks.
When the season begins, the team focuses on their games and how to improve their play. Ratledge said if the team makes a mistake they will drill over and over until they get the play right. She said it is important for the players to understand what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.
For most of the players, softball just comes naturally, Ratledge said. "About the hardest thing is that I drill in to them that you have to work hard ... nothing is handed to you ... and not to take things for granted."
But while it is hard work, it apparently is fun. Each year, girls return to the diamond in hopes of earning a title.
This year's varsity and junior varsity squads included 20 players. Taking part are seniors Stephanie Hency, Whitney Beggs, Kristin Harper, Kelly Essner, Jessica Burnett and Rachel Kline; juniors Meghan Tetley, Mindy Robert and Jaime Jackson; sophomores Brittany Ponder, Kalie Hughes, Summer Proctor, Ashley Vetter, Kaitlin Vetter, Kourtnie Smith and Hannah Rolwing; and freshmen Brittney Heuring, Kayla Cissell, April Rockett and Sarah Ruff.
According to the coach, the team is a mix of "outstanding talent. I think every person has their own special way. Maybe it's not even offense or defense, maybe just as a good leader."
Ratledge, who also serves as the Kelly High School guidance counselor, also points with pride that the players typically do well academically. "You do have to be smart to play smart ball. I do emphasize academics. I tell them if they are good players they must incorporate academics. To go on to play college ball they have to have both." Kelly's softball team regularly produces college-level players.
While it takes talented players, Ratledge added, there is a secret weapon in the stands at every game. She praised the dedication of her players' parents. "And we have grandparents, students, little kids coming out to watch them. That helps a whole lot," Ratledge said.
With the fans watching, they took on the games at sectional then at quarterfinals Friday and Saturday. Most of the varsity players knew what to expect as play began, but Ratledge acknowledged there are jitters for them and even her.
"I don't think you ever quit having those butterflies," she said. "You want them to experience going on to state. They know it is a tradition and they want to try to carry on that tradition."
And now for that state title...