Undefeated. Overwhelming favorites. Which team could possibly beat them once, let alone twice?
Papillion-La Vista’s players and coaches have heard that chorus all season. The Monarchs also had those same words and phrases tossed their way one year ago.
It all rang true until the final day of the 2018 state softball tournament when Lincoln Southwest did the previously not-thought-possible and defeated the Monarchs not once, but twice, on a sunny Saturday in Hastings.
The Silver Hawks headed for home with their third state title while denying Papio its state record 15th, leaving the Monarchs to add a sixth runner-up trophy to their well-stocked softball trophy display.
Here they are again, undaunted by that October surprise, ready to win four more games and reclaim the throne that’s most often been occupied by Monarchs. Only Papillion-La Vista has qualified for all 27 Class A state tournaments, so being in the championship game 20 of the first 26 years is a remarkable accomplishment itself.
Papio seems like a strong candidate to make it 21 of 27. Last year the Monarchs were 31-0, this year they are 32-0. Earned or unearned, the Monarchs have allowed just 16 runs all season.
Only No. 3 Omaha Marian has held the Monarchs to fewer than four runs in a game; Top 10 No. 2 Omaha Skutt, the top seed in Class B, was the next-closest when the SkyHawks dropped a 4-0 decision last month.
So how much different/better are the Monarchs this season than last? Papio coach Todd Petersen wasn’t sure he had a definitive answer.
“I don’t know if I have the answer because I thought we were there last year,” Petersen said. “If there is a difference, I’d say we’re a year older, a little more experienced, and we did have that experience last year.”
Petersen has consistently answered the “what happened last year” question all season. It’s one for which he will never change his answer.
“It’s really hard for people to understand if they weren’t there,” Petersen said. “They really did everything required to win. Sure, we had our chances. I don’t think we were overconfident, I think we just got beat.
“We could get beat this year if someone gets hot. We just have to focus on ourselves and play our best as much as we can.”
Those two losses snapped Papio’s 34-game winning streak but also served as motivation for the 2019 season. Many of the Monarchs’ top players in 2018 were sophomores or juniors. This year they’re juniors and seniors, and having Maggie Vasa transfer from Wahoo Neumann also has proved to be a big boost.
“I believe we’re in a better mental state overall because we’ve been through that,” Petersen said. “That’s not the way we wanted to do it; I’d rather not have had that happen and try to do it (win a state title) again.
“We did experience it and I think we learned a lot from it. It’s a hard thing to win. We always have high expectations. We have to play confident, but we also have to play free and loose like we have all season.”
If Oklahoma commit Jordyn Bahl continues to pitch like she has all season — her ERA is 0.05 — and Papio’s big bats continue to mash the ball around the diamond as they have, championship trophy No. 15 will make its way to Sarpy County.
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Great first-round games
With terrific weather across the state on Saturday, all 21 districts finished on the same day for the first time in several years.
Though Class A and Class C finished two days later than planned because of rain and cold temperatures, having days built into the schedule to account for adverse weather was a nice touch.
All but one of the districts was finished by early evening, but everyone had to wait until the if-necessary game in C-6 between Cozad and Kearney Catholic finished.
It wasn’t fun for those on pins and needles to wait until just before 10 p.m. to discover their fate, but it was the proper thing to get all scores in before the wild-card standings were updated.
In an odd twist of fate, the Haymakers and Kearney Catholic are opponents in Wednesday’s first round of Class C after they played three games Saturday. Cozad won the first game 12-2, and the Stars bounced back to win the next game 11-7 before the Haymakers landed enough blows in the title game to win 14-12.
There are other terrific first-round matchups Wednesday that have tasty storylines. Exhibit A: A pair of defending champions meeting in Class A’s first round at 2 p.m. Elkhorn, in Class A this year after winning Class B in 2018, faces A champ Lincoln Southwest.
Class C top seed Fairbury has a first-round rematch at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday with Malcolm. The Jeffs had to rally for a 21-15 victory Saturday in the title game of the C-3 tournament.
500-win coaches reach state
The two newest coaches in the 500-win club will be leading their teams into the state tournament. Mark Watt at Lincoln Southwest and Rob Sweetland of Wayne have joined Terry Graver as coaches who have reached that milestone. Graver retired Saturday with 518 wins in 21 seasons at Elkhorn and Elkhorn South.
Both coaches have 503 wins entering the state tournament. Watt and Sweetland also have led their teams to three state titles apiece — the third one for both coaches coming in 2018 — as well as three runner-up finishes.