Panthers celebrate end of inaugural varsity softball season
In the first-ever season for the Rugby Panthers softball team, even home games were away games.
The Panthers spent long hours on bus rides to venues as far away as Stanley, their stats counted in the “Home” column on the other team’s scoreboards.
Still, even with the disadvantage of no home diamond, the brand-new varsity team managed to scratch out seven season wins and advance to the playoffs.
The Panthers practiced at home, using the Rugby Recreation complex’s softball diamonds and saw plenty of support from their community, several players said.
“The community support was amazing, the coaches were phenomenal and I couldn’t have asked for a better season,” said team member Zarah-Mae Keenan at the team’s end-season awards banquet, where teammates laughed over shared memories and ate pizza.
In a speech to her teammates, Keenan said, “I just wanted to let you guys know no matter how frustrating things can get, don’t forget why you play in the first place. It’s just to have fun and be a teammate.”
“I hope you guys have a great rest of your future seasons,” Keenan, who graduated May 31, said. “Thanks for my first and last season.”
In addition to winning seven games in their inaugural season, the Panthers saw one of their own named to both the All-Sub-Region 3 and All-West Region teams. Brooke Anderson, a junior, was the first Panther to receive both honors.
“I was surprised to get (spots on the teams),” Anderson said. “I didn’t think I was going to get them.”
Anderson said her first year on the new varsity team “was really fun. I had a great time with all my teammates this year.”
Keenan agreed. “Honestly, it was an amazing experience, just the girls made it a fun time and we did what nobody thought we could do. Most people didn’t think we could win one game, let alone seven.”
Teammate Tesha Sobolik, a senior, said her first and last season as a Panthers softball player was “a great experience, I had played one year of softball but it wasn’t varsity, so I had a little bit of experience, but it was a whole new experience playing on the varsity team, traveling to all the away games, getting to play in those games.”
“It was just a fun time,” Sobolik added. “I got to make some new friendships and the coaches were amazing. I wish I had a couple more years, but I don’t so I just cherished the moment while I had it.”
Assistant Coach Olivia Erpelding also described the first-ever Panthers softball season as “fun.”
“We enjoyed our trips together on the bus,” Erpelding said. “There was a lot of time and a lot of bonding. We forced them to bond sometimes, playing games,” she added with a smile. “They enjoyed it,” Erpelding said. “It was a different atmosphere so every game was different. We never had a spot where we were on our own time.”
Erpelding said she and Head Coach Miriah Yoder helped the team fight fatigue on the long trips to games. “We kind of found that if they stayed energetic on the bus, then we started off on a better foot the first couple of innings,” Erpelding said.
“It was awesome,” Erpelding said of the season. “We’re very proud of their record and everything that they’ve accomplished this year. It was a lot of fun and it was good softball.”
“We had seven wins out of fifteen games,” Erpelding added. “We really tried to stress to them that it’s kind of unheard of to win that many games in your first year as a varsity team.”
Looking ahead to the second season for Panthers varsity softball, Yoder said, “Next year for sure we’re hopefully going to have home games.”
Yoder said she hoped “just to grow the sport and have more girls come out to play and learn and enjoy the sport of softball. Our summer program has 30 girls in it, so eventually down the road they’ll continue and come up and play varsity Panthers softball.”
Yoder is coaching the Rugby Recreation program’s summer softball league this year, with help from varsity player Anderson.
“I know Dave Schneibel and the rec workers have been putting a lot of work into the diamonds to get them ready and keep them in shape,” Yoder said.
Players on Yoder’s summer softball team range in age from 10-15.
“I have three that are going to be freshmen, two that are going to be eighth graders and the rest are fourth through going-into-sixth grade. We still have some older girls going into junior high and high school but most of them are fourth, fifth and sixth graders,” Yoder said.
Yoder said she hoped the younger players developed an interest in the game and sharpened their skills over the years to possibly play in high school.
Yoder added she hoped to have the high school-age players back for another season of Panthers softball.
“We’d love to have everyone back and it was just a fun season,” Yoder said. “Just getting to learn and grow the sport was just awesome, so hopefully everybody comes back.”
Erpelding and Yoder said they were “very optimistic” about next year’s Panthers softball season.
Players voted for their teammates in several categories. Receiving the Miss Panthers Softball title for their dedication to the sport were Joran Jundt, varsity and Brooklyn Hager, junior varsity. Rookie of the Year awards went to Joey Wolf, varsity and Reese Gullickson, JV. The Hustle Award went to Amy Volk, varsity and Monica Yoder, JV. Keenan was named Best Teammate in the varsity category, and Haylee Heilman received the title for JV players. Volk received the Spirit Award for varsity, while Hager received the award for JV players. Volk also received the Magnet Award for fielding the ball. The Magnet title also went to JV player Adison Dosch. Most Improved Awards went to Annika Johnson, varsity and Tammie Palmer, JV. Anderson received the Bubble Wrap Award, a humorous reference to overcoming mishaps and injuries in play. Mariann Kraft received the award in the JV category. Joey Wolf received the Golden Glove Award for varsity players with a fielding percentage of 93.9 percent. Saige Connot received the Varsity Slugger Award with a slugging percentage of 89.4 percent.
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