Nebraska State Champions, age 16 and under -- the Junior Belles of North Platte celebrate in Cody Park. Front row, from left: Shay Wear, Aryn Meisinger, Cheyenne Craghead, Kylee Griffis, Brittany Lawrence and Megan Ruppert. Back row: Brooke Frederick, Syd Standage, Samantha Byrn, Brook Boucher, Jacey Wiggins, Bree Saner and Anessa Kivett.
Playing the National tournament on your home field is something that only happens once in a lifetime for a team, if at all.
So for the ASA Northern National Softball Tournament this week, the 16-under North Platte Junior Belles are just looking to seize the opportunity.
"We just want to play well and play Junior Belles softball," Junior Belles coach Shelly Byrn said. "We struggled a little bit (in the Kansas City World Series). We didn't play our best ball. But right now, it's no excuses and I want the girls to have a lot of fun."
The Northern Nationals start Aug. 1 at the Dowhower Softball Complex at the corner of Gail Wicks Drive and 16th St.
The Belles will be looking to cap their successful season. With a record of 50-13, they've already won the Class A state championship.
To have that type of season, a lot of things have come together and worked in the favor of the Belles. They combine the best athletes the North Platte area has to offer, players who are not only successful in softball but other sports as well. Brittany Lawrence is an all-state volleyball player for North Platte St. Pat's. Brooke Frederick from Hershey won the Class C state championship in the pole vault. Samantha Byrn (St. Pat's), Brook Boucher (St. Pat's), Megan Ruppert (McCook) and Jacey Wiggins (Gothenburg) are also multi-sport standouts.
Byrn, who also serves as the head coach for the St. Pat's volleyball team, said that having players who branch out into other sports other than softball has helped the Belles become a powerhouse.
"We're a very athletic team," said Byrn. "We have girls who play different sports for different high schools and that has made us better as a team."
The Belles are a melting pot with players coming from several different high schools in the area. Byrn said she loves having all that, because she feels the Belles have a little bit of everything.
"It makes it a lot of fun having players from different high schools and different backgrounds with different personalities," she said. "There's never a dull moment with this team."
But with all that diversity, the chemistry is also surprisingly good and that has also helped the Belles be so successful.
"A lot of them have played together for a long time and we have really good chemistry," Byrn said. "We have a lot of support from parents and that creates a fun atmosphere."
At the Northern national tournament, the Belles will play two games in pool play and then depending on how they fare in those two games, they will go to either the winners' bracket or the losers' bracket.
Byrn says she hopes that in Nationals, her team will be playing with the same high level of energy they've had all season.
"The girls are really excited," said Byrn. "They're excited to host a big tournament and to sleep in their own beds."
North Platte has prepared for the tournament since 2010 when the Amateur Softball Association was announced that the city would be the host.
The idea to bid for the tournament came from North Platte resident Lonnie Parsons, a longtime softball coach. Through coaching the North Platte Bandits and the North Platte Belles, Parsons had traveled all over the country to many tournaments. But how nice, he thought, would it be to see teams converge on North Platte.
“We have had quite a few teams go to Texas and Florida and places like that, so the reputation of North Platte is pretty well known in softball,” Parsons said.
Parsons, Burke and Muriel Clark, executive assistant for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, believed that the town had a fair chance to host a Northern National tournament because of its softball history. North Platte is largely considered to be the women’s softball capital of Nebraska, thanks to the stellar efforts of such teams as the Belles and the Sensations, and their coaches.
When it comes to North Platte’s involvement in softball, the name of Gail Wicks is often the first to come up.
Wicks is the godfather of softball in North Platte. Before Title IX was passed in 1972, ushering in women's high school sports, Wicks started the North Platte Belles softball team and devoted himself to the development of the players, so much so, that he built a softball field and batting cages on his own property in Indian Hills south of town.
In the three and a half decades that Wicks coached, the Belles won five state championships, competed in 10 regional tournaments and three national tournaments. In 1993, he was inducted into the Nebraska Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame.
Among his former players was Susan Johnson-Hood, a pitcher who helped the University of Nebraska-Kearney win the NAIA National Championship in 1990.
“I am really lucky I ran into him,” she told the Bulletin in 2003 right before she was inducted into the University of Nebraska athletes Hall of Fame. “Some people make such a difference in your life. He was my coach for five years and taught me the real style of pitching, instead of a bowling type of motion. He was a role model. He approaches softball like a science. He kept every statistic you can imagine.”
The name of Gail Wicks lives on in the form of Gail Wicks Drive — a one-block stretch of road that runs from Sycamore to Ash St. north of the Dowhower Softball Complex. The street was named in Wicks’ honor on Feb. 20, 2005, one day before he died of lymphoma.
Parsons, who got to know Wicks toward the end of his illustrious career, said that he was a mild-mannered coach who used softball to teach his players life values.
“His goal was not to have a championship team,” Parsons said. “His main goal was to develop his players into being the best citizens they could be.”