Culture change has Douglas County softball off to a hot start

(Courtesy of Nadine Kirk)

Take notice, softball world: Douglas County is here to make some noise this season.

The Huskies, state tournament participants in Class 5A a season ago, are off to a 4-0 start, including wins over 5A No. 2 Fossil Ridge, and defending 4A champion and preseason No. 1 Mountain View.

"It scared me a little bit looking at the schedule," said second-year Douglas County coach Dane Craig. "I was like, 'Geez, did I put too much on thrm?' But they've played well. The teams we've played, especially the last two, have been really good. And Mountain Range is going to get better as they go on. I mean, we've caught some of these teams a little early. These are good teams, and we're going to face a couple more here this week, and I'm pretty excited about what we can do."

There's a different feeling around the program this season, even from last season. Craig, the longtime coach at Mountain Range who won a state title in 2015, was hired in mid-July of 2017, mere weeks before the season. It didn't leave him a whole lot of time to put his own stamp on the program.

Even still, parents from last year's team indicated that the felt a shift in the culture, and that the players were having more fun.

"That's when I knew that not only was this going to work, I needed to change it even more," Craig said. "And that's what took us to where we are today. I've had nothing but support from every one of my parents and athletic director."

(Courtesy of Nadine Kirk)

This offseason, Craig and the program's supporters set out to further change the culture. They put school flags up around the softball stadium, and installed a new windscreen around the outfield. It features a pair of Husky eyes staring back toward the batter.

"When I went out there the first time — the field's nice, but there was nothing that really felt like home," Craig said. "Now they've got somewhere they can call home."

They bought brand new uniforms.

They changed the schedule, and will play in the prestigious Erie Festival of Champions this season. On Thursday, they'll play perennial power Legacy under the lights at Metro State.

"I wanted to make sure that they felt special, and that they are a cornerstone" of the school's athletic department, Craig said. "And I think it's helping, because our first game against Liberty, our stands were packed. I mean there were kids everywhere. It was a lot of fun to watch."

All the changes have also meant the girls on the team are having more fun.

"The culture is very positive," said Douglas County athletic director Jeff Gardella. "He's putting the stamp on this program as his program, and the girls are having fun."

Of course, winning is also a big part of that fun. And those girls have a lot to do with those wins.

Alley Kim and Savanna Reiners, two seniors, serve as captains this season.

Kim, a third baseman, is hitting .417 with four RBIs. She's also stolen three bases. "She's started off amazing so far," Craig said.

Reiners is 4-0 as the team's primary pitcher, and her 33 strikeouts rank fourth in 5A. Craig said that she's "throwing the ball better than I've ever seen her throw. She really helped improve herself over the offseason, and that's paying off so far."

(Courtesy of Nadine Kirk)

Other major contributors early include center fielder Abby Stallcup, another senior ("Her confidence has grown tremendously," Craig said); as well as junior shortstop Taylor Griffin, who has a .571 average. Katie Hilsman, a junior catcher, is "stepping up this year as a leader and power-hitter," Craig said.

"The kids who were all juniors and sophomores last year are the standout leaders this year," Craig said.

Youth is also a big factor.

Genevieve Bower, a sophomore, is playing first base, but can also catch and play third base.

"She's the only kid that's hit a home run on the team so far," Craig said. "She's the one that put it a good distance over the fence. She's going to be the one that pops up as a surprise that nobody knows."

Alyssa Gutierrez, a freshman, has "instantly become my leadoff batter," Craig said. But her impact goes beyond that: "She's fit in with the team like she's been there for year," the coach said. "It's really helping out the cohesiveness of the team."

It's made for a close group of girls.

"They've all bonded together so quickly," Craig said. "It's been fun to watch."

The foundation of the entire program got stronger with the addition of Jessica King and Elsie Billick as junior varsity coaches. Both used to play softball at Douglas County.

"They own that program," Craig said. "They're just running with it. It's fun to watch what they're doing with those kids. They're just enjoying every second of it."

So while the 4-0 start is great, what's been better is the shift in culture. The Huskies are looking forward to what's ahead.

"It's been a blast," Craig said. "I'm really looking forward to the future."