COLUMBIA FALLS – Amanda Milliard grins and lets the question resonate. What is her team’s goal?
“Bring home some hardware,” Milliard said.
The five seniors on the Columbia Falls Wildkats softball team are no longer content with simply making it to the state tournament. They’ve already done it three times – once for each year of high school.
In their first season as freshmen, they didn’t taste victory at state, as their team lost out in consecutive games. The next year, they won one game. Last year, they won two games. This year, the five friends are raising the bar. They believe they can beat anybody.
But there’s still a lot of regular season left for the Wildkats, who are 10-3 overall and 5-1 in the conference. They’re good, for sure, with powerful bats throughout the lineup, an emerging star at pitcher in junior Morgan Rowe and a reliable defense. But they’re not where they want to be yet.
Coach Dave Kehr would like to see the girls sharpen the finer points of their game: laying down well-placed bunts, hitting for contact when necessary and continuing to improve across the board. All of which begins with the Wildkats’ tight-knit group of senior leaders: Milliard, Amber James, Kayla Stinger, Cedar Smith and Tia Yaeger. On and off the field, the five maintain close relationships.
“We’re kind of like sisters,” Milliard said. “We look out for each other.”
It’s been years since Kehr has had the benefit of such a solid senior class. Last year he had one senior, the year before two and three years ago none. James, a power-hitting catcher, remembers when there were none.
James and her four classmates were freshmen at the time. They battled through the season, into the state tournament, without the guidance of upperclassmen. If at times it felt like they were being thrown to the wolves, they didn’t let it rattle them. They learned to observe and adapt, combining what their coaches taught them in practice with the lessons thrown at them in competition.
After three years of playing together with that tenacious mentality, the seniors have formed unshakable bonds. Not to mention, they have plenty of advice to dispense to the underclassmen.
“We’ve pretty much taught each other without having seniors to look up to,” James said. “So I’m hoping we can be those role models to the younger players now.”
Softball makes sense to the five seniors. James has played since she was 4 years old and the rest aren’t far behind. They remember playing with – or against – each other in recreation league in middle school before starting their four-year run together in high school. Today, they go to movies, play other sports and do homework together.
Kehr said the seniors make bus trips and hotel stays a pleasure for the whole team, providing both guidance and liveliness – they’ve made plenty of trips in their high school careers. Their presence, Kehr said, is invaluable to the team.
“You can expect more out of them and so far they’ve lived up to that billing,” Kehr said.
The Wildkats’ season has seen its flashes of brilliance, such as Rowe’s no-hitter against Browning and James’ walk-off two-run homer to straightaway center to beat Anaconda 5-3. Another highlight was a 5-0 victory over defending state champ Libby, a game in which Rowe struck out six batters en route to the shutout.
In addition to the seniors, the team’s two juniors, including Rowe, along with a maturing core of sophomores and freshmen have played instrumental roles in the Wildkats’ early success. Now the heart of the regular season awaits, with important conference games scheduled throughout May until the state tournament on May 28-30 in Polson. Milliard knows her team is ready.
“When someone’s down, we know how to pick them up,” Milliard said. “We’re not selfish, we’re definitely a true team.”
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