Apr. 20—Kaitlyn Gregoire, who pitched most of the innings during the Indians' 5-16 campaign two years ago, induced the game-sealing ground ball. Ellie Hacker, the lone remaining senior from the 2019 team, gloved it and stepped on first.
Just like that, the 2021 Indians accomplished in 10 games what their predecessors failed to do in 21. Manhattan earned its sixth win Monday when it beat Emporia 10-4 in Game 2 of a frigid, blustery double-header.
Hacker remembers when the Indians couldn't execute simple plays like her final putout. She said defense was one of the Indians' biggest weaknesses two seasons ago.
But against Emporia, the Spartans were the team committing seven errors that sunk their chances. Manhattan committed two, but neither led to runs. These Indians don't compound mistakes. They exploit them.
"We have trust in each other," Hacker said. "I think we all know that we just have to do our job and take accountability. That helps us all have confidence in each other."
Manhattan needed that confidence against Emporia pitcher Gracie Gilpin, who used deceptive breaking balls and a quick delivery to limit Manhattan's offense to two runs through three innings. The Indians only reached the outfield grass five times during that span.
Tied at two in the fourth, however, they learned they didn't need the outfield to score runs. Takara Kolterman helped score Gregoire on a ground ball to third base (Kolterman's leadoff speed forced a high throw at first). Two batters later, Kolterman scored on Hacker's two-out base-hit bunt down the first-base line.
Hacker, who finished 3-for-4 with two RBIs, said she doesn't practice bunting often. But that didn't stop head coach Connie Miller from signaling Hacker to try one.
"I wasn't sure if she meant to give me (the sign) or not," Hacker said. "But as soon as she gave it, I knew I had to get (the bunt) down."
Miller said after the game that she wanted to make Emporia field as many hits as possible because, "The wind and the cold do weird things to the ball." The Spartans proved her point in the fifth, when they committed three errors to help Manhattan open a 9-2 lead.
That was plenty of cushion for staring pitcher Kierra Goos, who allowed two runs on five hits through five innings. Goos also struck out 10 batters and walked none while exuding another attribute Hacker said Manhattan was lacking two years ago: travel-ball talent.
"The travel ball experience makes a big difference," Hacker said. "Some of these younger players have already played against 18 year-olds. They can hit and play defense against them."
If the Indians didn't play Monday's doubleheader, Miller said, she's not sure how they would've responded.
After two postponements forced Manhattan to wait two weeks between games, Miller said her players were "itching" to play. And in its 12-1 Game 1 win over Emporia, they channelled their pent-up energy properly.
They wasted no time, either. Manhattan scored five runs while batting through the order in the first inning. Hacker, Goos, Caylee Begnoche, Reagan Neitzel and Jaden McGee earned RBIs during the rally.
"The more runs you score, the looser you play," Miller said. "And then it all comes together."
Miller thought McGee looked relaxed during the five innings McGee threw during her abridged complete game. She allowed just one run on four hits while striking out nine batters and walking none.
Manhattan, on the other hand, earned 14 hits and struck out just three times. The Indians scored four more runs in the fourth and three in the fourth. Neitzel, who finished 3-for-3 with three RBIs, hit her first varsity home run to leadoff the third. She gave the home-run ball to her father after the game.
Neitzel is also one more example of the change occurring in Miller's program. She, too, plays travel ball, which not only means she's played varsity level-competition but that she harbors a passion for the sport.
She loves softball enough to play during multiple seasons, enough to play in day-long tournaments on summer weekends, even enough to play in the bitter cold after two weeks off.
That, in Miller's mind, is why the Indians' have improved their record so dramatically.
"We have a different group of kids than we had two years ago," Miller said. "We've got kids that come in with playing experience and drive and desire. They're playing the game the way it should be played."
Game 1: MHS 12, Emporia 1
Emporia 0 0 0 1 0 X X — 1
Manhattan 5 0 4 3 X X X — 12
WP — McGee LP — Rylea Harris
HR: Manhattan 1 (Neitzel)
2B: Emporia 1 (Harris), Manhattan 2 (Goos, Neitzel).
Game 2: MHS 10, McPherson 4
Great Bend 0 0 2 0 0 0 2 — 4
Manhattan 2 0 0 2 5 1 X — 10
WP — Goos LP — Gilpin
3B: Manhattan 1 (McKenzie Reid)
2B: Emporia 2 (Gilpin, Kaylee Thomas), Manhattan 2 (Neitzel, Goos)