Photo by Bulletin file photo
Head Coach B.J. Songster
For the first time in nine years, the North Platte High School softball team will be playing in the state tournament this week.
NPHS coach B.J. Songster said it is gratifying to see her team reach the primary goal it set for itself.
The Bulldogs (25-9), who are seeded seventh, will play No. 2 seed Omaha Skutt (24-4) on Wednesday at 9 a.m. in Hastings.
"We're super excited," Songster said. "It's a huge accomplishment. It says a lot about our program. We came so close last year and our girls were determined and competitive all year long. We were bound to have success."
It's been a long road back to state for the Lady Dawgs. For four straight years, from 2001-04, they went to the state tournament after wins in the Class A district against the other four outstate schools (Kearney, Grand Island, Columbus and Norfolk) with the help of dominant pitchers Bethany Nichelson and Krista Blakeman.
But then North Platte suffered five straight losing seasons. Songster, who was on the school's first competitive softball team in 1996 and became an assistant coach in 2002, took over as head coach for Sharon Kramer in 2008. Now, five years later, she has the Bulldogs back at state.
"It took a while for us to rebound," Songster said. "My first few years as a coach I feel were rebuilding seasons. But now we're back at state. We have a few titles under our belt and we hope that this is the start of a tradition."
There's a couple of differences between this trip to state and the four in the early 2000s for the Lady Dawgs. First, the state tournament is closer to home, now held in Hastings instead of Omaha.
The other difference is that NPHS is competing in Class B.
In Class B, North Platte will be the biggest school at state as opposed to playing larger schools from Omaha and Lincoln as was the situation from 2001-04.
Knowing that should give the Lady Bulldogs a boost in confidence, Songster said.
"Class B, Class A; it is what it is," she said. "But I think that with them almost making it in Class A last year, they know they can do it in Class B."
NPHS flexed its muscle last weekend in the district tournament, defeating Cozad 9-2 to open the tournament and then sweeping two from runner-up McCook, 3-2 and 9-1, to finish the tournament.
"From the beginning, the girls were ready to play ball," Songster said. "They relished being the host team and they were pumped. In game one (against Cozad), they showed they had a goal and direction. Then they won a tight first game against McCook. But in the second game, they were pumped and left no doubt they were the champs."
At state, North Platte will play the only team in the field it has played already this year in Skutt. The Bulldogs and the Skyhawks have played twice, with each team winning once.
"In a way that helps us because we know we can beat them," Songster said. "I am pretty sure that they weren't happy (with the game we beat them in). They only have four losses and we gave them one. So we know we can do it."
The No. 7 seed may be misleading, considering that North Platte continued to play nearly the same schedule of previous years in Class A. This year, they faced Class A state qualifiers Lincoln Southeast, Lincoln North Star and Grand Island.
Even if the Bulldogs were to lose to Skutt in the first game, they can work their way through the loser's bracket in the double elimination tournament.
"We're definitely prepared," Songster said. "The girls are competitors. They're excited, anxious and ready to go out and compete."