The Panthers softball team has accomplished something that the Norfolk High softball program hasn’t achieved since 2006 — qualifying for the Nebraska State Softball Tournament.
Norfolk, the No. 7 seed with a 28-14 record, opens play on Wednesday with a 9 a.m. contest against second-seeded Gretna (27-5) at the Bill Smith Softball Complex in Hastings.
“It’s a great feeling (to qualify), but you’ve got to give the credit to these girls,” said Derek Siedschlag, Norfolk’s fourth-year coach. “They've earned it. They were so close last year to qualifying — falling .18 points short of earning a wild card — and they’ve been working their tails off for this ever since. They came together this year; they're a close group that likes to play together, and they all get along. It all kind of came together at the right time.”
The last Norfolk High team to qualify for state in softball was the 2006 Panthers, under then-coach Bruce Shively. Norfolk also qualified in 2005 (21-19 record) but lost both of its games in the double-elimination tournament; however, in 2006, the team went 24-17 and won its district. The Panthers lost to Papillion La Vista South 2-0 in their first game at state, then defeated Millard South 7-6 before being eliminated 7-4 by Omaha Westside.
Siedschlag, whose sister Kayla was a senior second baseman for the Panthers, was in attendance in 2006, even though “I was an eighth grader, just a kid running around.”
Qualifying for state has been a goal of the program during his four years as head coach, Siedschlag said, and now the team has the opportunity to continue playing its best softball when it matters most.
“We’ve always said we wanted to host a district. We haven’t done that, but we also wanted to be playing our best softball at the end of October, and here we are,” Siedschlag said. “We played our best softball in Omaha in our district tournament — it was solid softball all day long. We finally got a breakthrough, and now we get to go see what the big stage is all about.”
Norfolk’s best softball of the season, which evolves around its ability to hit the ball, showed itself in the recent district tournament where the Panthers responded to a one-hit outing against Omaha Marian in a 9-1 loss, by pounding 12 hits in a losers bracket win against Lincoln Southeast, followed by nine hits and 11 hits in consecutive victories over Marian that secured the Class A-3 district championship.
The Panthers boast a .364 team batting average, paced by three players — sophomores Emerson Waldow (.440) and Payton Schnoor (.421) and junior Ava Borgman (.418) — hitting over .400, while also totaling 27 home runs as a team, led by Borgman and sophomore catcher Miley Wichman with six each, while Waldo has five round-trippers.
"Right now it's a one-through-nine effort from our batting order," Siedschlag said. "Everybody is doing their job, whether they're putting a bunt down or hitting a sacrifice fly to get a girl home from third."
Sophomore lefthander Jessica Schmidt, who pitched just 43 innings while accumulating a 7-1 record and 64 strikeouts during the 2020 season, has accounted for 20 wins against just nine losses on the mound this season and also totaled 176 strikeouts with a 2.30 ERA.
Meanwhile, freshman Kierstyn Linn — who became the team’s No. 2 pitcher in mid-September — has a 2-2 record but was the winning pitcher in the Panthers’ 13-2 district championship game win over Marian.
Defensively, Norfolk has been solid, committing just 42 errors in its 42 games this season.
Gretna (27-5) was the top-ranked team in Class A much of the season but, surprisingly, the Dragons lost two games in district play and qualified for the state tournament as a wild-card team — dropping from the pending first seed to the second seed behind Lincoln Southwest.
Siedschlag discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Gretna with the Omaha Marian coach but ultimately said he and his coaches — Jeff Pasold, Robert Padilla, Sean Wetterberg and Katie Uttecht — decided that the team is better off just “doing its thing” at state.
“We kind of talked about it yesterday and decided I could ask lots of coaches for all kinds of information about Gretna,” Siedschlag said. “But we decided it’s more about us going down there and just doing our thing, to just take care of our business. I hope we just go out and play our softball. It's a big production out there, but I hope the girls just come out ready to go.”
Norfolk High state softball tournament roster:
Seniors: Taylor Schmidt, Cara Graae,Tara Koch, Ryllee Hoppe and Cydnee Hopkins.
Juniors: Ava Borgman and Kaia Kollmar.
Sophomores: Miley Wichman, Payton Schnoor, Jessica Schmidt, Emerson Waldow and Reilly Vrbsky.
Freshmen: Kierstyn Linn, Zoey Nielsen and Kylie Baumgard.