Monday's doubleheader split delivered first loss of the season for each team
Entering Monday's doubleheader, it was clear the top two teams in Class 4A were Andale/Garden Plain and Augusta, although in which order had yet to be determined.
Both teams were looking like championship frontrunners at 14-0, and for the most part neither team had been challenged. That changed on April 29 when Augusta invaded Andale as both teams attempted to assert themselves as the best team in 4A.
But the result was what you might expect from two equally-matched opponents: a split. Andale/GP won the first game 2-0, but Augusta responded with a 5-0 shutout of its own.
Andale/GP head coach Chuck Schrader emphasized to his team winning game one, but he acknowledges that the sweep would have been ideal.
"Going into the games, we hoped to win the first game and when we did it made losing game two disappointing because we left some good scoring chances on the bases," Schrader said.
Andale/GP was able to get to Augusta standout Gracie Johnston in game one, but Johnston closed the door in game two.
"We knew that Augusta has a strong frontline pitcher in Missouri State signee Gracie Johnston, and that runs would be at a premium," Schrader said. "We concentrated on being ready defensively to face their strong hitting lineup and then being ready to take advantage of the scoring opportunities that we could generate."
Augusta head coach Jamie VanDever said the game plan against Andale was no different than any other opponent, but the decision to pitch Johnston in both games of the doubleheader was a bit out of the norm.
Johnston's pitch count was low after game one, so VanDever felt comfortable pitching her in game two.
In total, Johnston struck out 25 batters in two games.
"Andale is a very talented team, but if there is one thing that we proved in the doubleheader is that we are just as talented," Johnston said.
Johnston is the first player in Augusta softball history to sign with a Division I program. VanDever says Johnston may not look intimidating off the diamond, but that changes quickly once she enters the circle.
"She is not the most graceful physical specimen you have ever seen, but when she is in the circle, look out," VanDever said. "It is as if she transforms from a clumsy kid into a beast. She is just a tenacious competitor who hates to lose."
But Johnston wasn't the only superstar in Monday's matchup.
Andale features outfielder Macie Eck, who committed to Notre Dame as a sophomore, and was featured on the cover of this year's Kansas Pregame Spring Sports Preview. Eck, the team's only senior, made a spectacular catch at the wall to rob Augusta's Bailey Pennycuff of a game-tying home run.
Instead of a tie game, Andale held on for a 2-0 win.
Schrader describes Eck as the complete player.
"She brings a blend of speed, power, and a high softball IQ," Schrader said. "You couple that with a tremendous work ethic and a strong desire to compete and win and you have one of the best softball players in the state."
Eck has helped Andale to two state championship appearances, but a state title still alludes her. According to Eck, the team is determined to win it all.
"There have been quite a few people who have been on varsity and we all have been shooting for that one goal: a state championship," Eck said. "I think our goal this season is just to take it one game at a time and hopefully reach our main goal of playing for a state championship."
However, teams do not win 15 of their first 16 games of the season with only one good player.
Augusta is led by their three seniors: Johnston, Pennycuff, and Kourtney Divine. Johnston speaks for all three seniors when she says they have unfinished business to take care of.
"Us three seniors do not plan on going to college without a state ring," Johnston said.
Additionally, VanDever credits most of the team's success to his seniors.
"I am sometimes amazed by how little coaching I have to do," VanDever said. "This team knows what to do and how to do it. They just stay focused on their goals and don't let anything get in the way. I am incredibly proud of them."
Andale had to replace five seniors from last year, which has allowed younger players to step up and excel.
Freshman Alyssa Mude pitched well in game two and has played well all season long. Andale also relies on returning starters Abby Gordon, Madison Grimes, Kyla Eck, and Rachel Choate.
"Team chemistry has also been a big factor this year," Schrader said.
While Schrader remains humble and focused, he is approaching a big milestone. His next win will be the 200th of his career.
Eck and the rest of the Indians are excited about the possibility of earning their coach one more win.
"Getting him his 200th win would mean a lot because we could give him back just a small gift for everything he has done for us," Eck said.
Both teams have two more doubleheaders left before postseason softball begins. Andale hosts Wellington and travels to El Dorado, while Augusta has Rose Hill at home and Mulvane on the road.
Gallagher Martin is a sportswriter for Kansas Pregame and the McPherson Sentinel.