Norfolk High softball

Coach Siedschlag, Makenna Waldow (15), Skylar Hopkins (9), Bailey Bernstrauch look on while the opposing coach is talks with his pitcher early this fall. 

George W. Bush was in his second term as president, Daniel Powter topped the pop charts with "Bad Day" and astronomers decided that Pluto was no longer a planet. The year was 2006. It was also the last time a Norfolk High softball team finished with a winning record.

That 12-season drought will officially end this year. The Panthers are 21-12 and start play as the No. 2 seed in the A-4 district at Gretna. Norfolk will face No. 3 seed Grand Island (17-21) at 11 a.m. on Wednesday.

Coach Derek Siedschlag said every player on this year's Panther team has completely bought in. "Everything from pitching to hitting, they're playing together more as a team," he said. "In the past, there's always been some girls that aren't getting along, but now I feel like it's a real tight team. If someone makes an error, they're not getting down on each other. They're picking each other back up."

Last year's Panthers just missed ending the streak, finishing with a record of 20-21. Siedschlag said the players went back to work in the summer and came together in August, ready to take the program to the next level.

"We had some girls playing Golden Girls, we had some girls playing Kelly's and there was also a couple of girls who played out of town; they go down to Omaha and Lincoln," he said. "All those reps in the summer, and they bring it all together in the high school season; that's where we're seeing success."

It all starts with a dynamic 1-2 combination in the pitching circle with senior Sydney Rader and junior Brandy Unger. "Sydney has been pitching since she was a freshman,” Siedschlag said. "She's carried most of the load the whole season. Brandy has been really good as of late. She's really turned it on in the last two, three weeks."

That includes a no-hitter Unger tossed last Monday against Lincoln Pius X. Siedschlag said as long as Rader and Unger are hitting their spots, they can be tough to hit.

Paeton Coler spent the early part of this season in the pitching rotation but broke her finger about a month ago and hasn't pitched since. That hasn't stopped her from playing a solid third base for the Panthers, and offensively, she leads the team in hitting (.464), home runs (4) and RBIs (34).

Also on the left side of the infield, Rader and Bailey Bernstrauch share duties at shortstop. "As long as we keep the errors to a minimum, we're doing a good job," Siedschlag said.

On the right side, Siedschlag said Makenna Waldow has been playing well all season at second base while junior lefthander Natalia Linn has played well at first.

Meanwhile, Taylor Schmidt has carried the load behind the plate. "She's only a sophomore, and this is her first year of only playing catcher," Siedschlag said. "She's caught almost every game this year."

When Unger isn't pitching, she's playing left field. Senior Skylar Hopkins plays center. "She's been really solid out there," Siedschlag said, "and then Jade Koch holds it down in right field. She's a lefty as well."

The Panthers got off to a slow start and sported a record of 8-7 midway through the season. Of the seven losses, four were by a margin of one or two runs.

"It was always just one or two errors that were killing us," Siedschlag said. “But, we always tell the girls, 'Those games are going to help us in the long run,' and I feel right now, we're playing our best softball and we've learned a lot from those losses at the beginning of the year and right now, we're not making those mistakes."

With the postseason upon them, Siedschlag said there isn't a team in Nebraska his team can't compete with. "The girls set goals at the beginning of the year and they wanted to host a district, but they also wanted to get to that winning record and they're well on their way to doing that."

Siedschlag said the 2019 Panthers have set a high standard that he hopes future teams will build on. "We can be a very successful softball program if everyone's bought in and everyone believes in what's going on.

"We have four seniors and all of them start, but there's also some girls who are taking their time on the bench right now, but next year, they're going to be just as good as those four seniors. Everyone just keeps getting better and better as the season goes on, and then they work on their skills in the summer and then come back next year, and we should be right where we left off."

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