NIOBRARA COUNTY – In March, as COVID became the enemy to beat for all sports teams in Wyoming, many heads were hung in sorrow as games, schedules and even practices were canceled statewide.
If someone would have told this town that by July’s end we would have three state champions in softball, you would be hard pressed to find someone who could believe that.
Niobrara County did, however, have a core of young female athletes and dedicated coaches that did embrace the impossible and never stopped believing in themselves and the dream to win a state championship.
One of the rewards for the 10U, 12U and 14U Lady Lobos was a grand parade in three separate firetrucks that paraded from Lewis Park and circled around the town to a hero’s welcome home. Sirens were blaring, crowds were cheering and the teams seated atop the trucks on that cool and sprinkling night, July 14.
The anticipation from the crowd spawned stories retold of the championship games, the excitement and the courage of the Lady Lobos and as you watched the eyes of the younger girls light up, somehow it was being set in stone that this year’s program was becoming something of a legend.
During COVID, amid a shortened practice season, some tough seasonal losses, the odds setting the stage to create something legendary on the weekend of the state tournament. Nobody knows exactly what they ate for breakfast on those days. The girls don’t remember the outfits they were wearing. Hardly anyone remembers the speeches that went forth before the tournament started.
But what they did feel was the magic and the mystique of Wheatland softball that always had a reputation for greatness and a close-knit bond with other athletes within the community that is perhaps unlike any in the entire state of Wyoming.
“I think it was a shock for us to be champions because it was our first year in the 12U bracket” said 12U head coach Courtney Sisson. “I figured that this would just be a learning year. To come out on top when we faced teams that were older than us was really a fabulous surprise. We pitched Karley Adams and Landri Vaughn for all the tournament games. The only catcher we had was Maggie Hicks.”
Next year, Sisson and her coaching staff which is comprised of her husband Derrick Sisson and Hayley Robertson are going to be bringing this team back to the tournament with experience under their belts and they will still be coaching in the 12U group.
On championship weekend, the first team to be awarded a state championship was the 14U group and according to Sisson, they had a legit win, having played all their possible games. With an unexpected storm that blew in, the 12U and 10U girls won without having to play a final game due to the weather, but because they had the best records in bracket play, they were both deemed state champions.
“The 10U and 12U teams won by default because they were undefeated,” Sisson said. “Our championship game was supposed to start at 6:30 and they were about a game and a half behind. The rain started falling at 6 and rained for about an hour, soaking the field.”
The overall record for the weekend for the 14U team was a perfect 5-0. The 12U team was 5-1 for the three-day event and the 10U team ended up 4-0. What was impressive about the 10U team is that in the final two games, they pitched no-hitters, one against Casper and one against Buffalo.
“Last year, 2019, we won the 12u State Title and knew our level of play was improving greatly,” Head Coach Travis Lockman said. “So before this season, 2020, even started Coach Scott Aurich and I knew we needed to challenge our girls at the 14u level and start playing the best teams we could find. And we did just that, playing games against some of the best teams in the state, teams made up of 16 year old girls (16u) and teams made up of 18 year old girls (18u) and also some incredibility talented teams from Nebraska and Colorado.”
Lockman and Aurich made a point after every practice and game that they needed to count it as practice for state and the goal was to peak at the state tournament.
“Throughout the season, I knew how good our girls were and it was just Coach Aurich and my job to push them to get there,” Lockman said. “I have told many people and truly believe it, the girls have all the talent, they did all the work, they put in the time they showed the heart. They were so good that they have overcome my coaching and still won back-to-back State championships. And I have a handful of girls that have stuck with us and won 3 State Championships and 2 Runners-up in 5 years. That shows true commitment from all the girls in our program.”
The 10U team, as the season began had no pitcher that had ever pitched in a live game. With many hours of coaching and the girls attending pitching clinics, they were readying themselves for the state tournament.
“These girls played great and never trailed once during the tournament,” 10U head coach Brian Connell said. “Our pitching and our hitting were as good as it had been all year. This group of 10U girls, of which none of them are older than 9U age, ended this season with a 15-game winning streak. That is impressive at any level, in my opinion.”
All the coaches were so dedicated and so positive in the midst of the adversity and unusual circumstances this season.
“It was important for us to have a season this year,” Robertson said. “And get the girls out of the house during the COVID shutdown. Being outside in the sunshine with their teammates was a priority.
According to Sisson this is the fifth year together for her girls and there has been a softball support system created.
“I don’t know if we can say that they have always been like this all season,” Sisson said. “This state experience; these girls truly just stepped up and produced like we’ve never seen them produce before. There were some plays out there that we thought, ‘oh my heavens!’ We’ve been teaching them something right.”