A group of 15 high school girls sit around a table at Winstead’s on a Wednesday night, clad in black practice uniforms for softball. French fry crumbs and the remains of milkshakes litter the table, as well as a barely-touched pineapple ice cream soda.
The girls’ laughter fills the near-empty restaurant as they playfully question their young waiter. Softball is far from their minds. Though tomorrow night they’ll suit up in their real uniforms to take on the returning softball champions, Olathe Northwest, tonight is team bonding.
Two years ago the Lady Lancer softball team ended the season with zero wins. Last year, six wins. This year, with a young but close team, the girls have a current record of 8-5, the best they’ve had in over 20 years.
The growing success of the softball team happened simultaneously with head coach Deon Slemp, who was promoted last year to the position after being an assistant coach. Slemp’s main goal was to change the attitude of the program. He wanted to give the girls the confidence they were missing after 2008’s 0-20 season.
“The biggest thing is to instill in their own mind that they’re capable of going out and playing a game at a high level,” Slemp said. “Capable of going out and winning.”
Starting last year the practices became more regimented. Some days are offensive days, others are for practicing defense. Slemp provides the girls with different drills and exercises for whatever they’re having problems with. During a game against Shawnee Mission North, the team was having trouble hitting the outside pitch. The next day at practice, Slemp set up the pitching machine so that the ball would go over the outer corner of the plate.
With the different approach, the returning softball players came into this year with a new optimism. They felt closer as a team, more focused on winning, and had high expectations for themselves. Sophomore Shannon McGinley joined as a pitcher last year, when they were still timid and unsure of what they could achieve. Now, the girls see themselves as a serious competitor for other schools.
“We know that we can win this year and we know that we can compete with the best,” McGinley said. “We have a lot higher expectations for ourselves.
Unlike other schools, they’re competing composed as a team solely of freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Junior Haley Fosnough-Biersmith sees this as good advantage. In the future, they won’t have to deal with the loss of any seniors.
“We’re all really familiar with each other,” Fosnough-Biersmith said. “And we’re all coming back next year so we’ll have an even stronger team.”
The absence of seniors has also gone hand in hand with the absence of any separation. Slemp can see a stronger sense of camaraderie in the team this year, and players like McGinley and Fosnough-Biersmith can feel it. Words of encouragement are heard from teammates in the dugout during a game. Team dinners every Wednesday night give them a chance to joke around off of the softball diamond. Occasionally, after a bus ride back to the East parking lot, the girls take part in a post-game dance party around their cars.
With a positive and skilled team, Slemp hopes to finish the year at 13-7, making it through at least the first round in regionals. McGinley and other teammates hope to go even farther.
“I think that we’re good enough to make it to state,” McGinley said. “Our talent is there, it’s just about playing as a team and all having the goal to get to state in our minds.”