McLouth Given the rural feel of the small town where he practices his craft, it makes perfect sense McLouth High softball coach Ballard Patterson would opt for a nature-inspired metaphor to describe the state of his program.
"Last year, we were kind of the hunter going after the bear," said Patterson, referring to his inaugural team that finished 15-5 and earned a spot in the Class 3A state tournament in Manhattan. "Now, I've convinced them that they better feel like the bear to some extent. ... They're not going to sneak up on anyone."
That hasn't stopped McLouth from mauling the competition just the same.
Now 14 games into the 2007 campaign, a strong case can be made the smallest school in Kansas' 3A ranks is the home of the biggest softball talent. With Monday night's shutout sweep of perennial power Silver Lake - the same team McLouth beat in last spring's regional final to earn its state bid - the Bulldogs improved to 14-0 and put themselves in prime position for a perfect run through the 20-game regular season.
It's made the McLouth program not just the talk of area softball circles, but the hottest topic in a community where sustained athletic success has proven to be an elusive target.
During Monday night's home baseball doubleheader, the crowd saved its biggest cheers not for the action taking place in front of it, but in reaction to a public-address announcement by McLouth athletic director Tom Pierce relaying the softball scores from Silver Lake.
"It just feels really good to be part of something so great," said sophomore Lezley "Lulu" Lawson, a two-way star who improved to 7-0 in the pitching circle with Monday night's Game 1 shutout. "When you go to school, people ask about the games. Around town, people ask, 'How's that softball team doing?'"
"It was really good for us to go to state last year," added fellow sophomore Kendall Patterson, the coach's daughter and starting catcher who earlier this month made a verbal commitment to play for Kansas University come the 2010 season. "It was big for our school and our community, because not many of our teams have got that far before."
So how does a small, rural Kansas school with an enrollment of just 130 students become a sudden softball mecca? In McLouth's case, it's a two-fold answer.
It started a little more than a decade ago when McLouth residents Donna Lawson and Michelle Harsh began introducing the game to the town's youth through a variety of lessons and clinics. Soon, a core group of young girls was hooked, and took the skills they'd learned and honed them year after year in the intense atmosphere of the competitive softball ranks - akin to the AAU basketball circuit. As a result, many of the girls now competing for the McLouth High varsity have upwards of 700 competitive games under their belts.
And it's not just the players who are benefiting from year-round competition. While in just his second season as the head of the McLouth high school program, Ballard Patterson has annually sharpened his skills by guiding the Olathe Rockets, a 16A competitive program - the highest level available for 16-year-old competitive players.
"That just helps a lot in what we're doing," Ballard Patterson said. "The approach is, softball is kind of a lifestyle for these girls, and it just carries over to high school. And it's not going to drop off."
There's already evidence to support Patterson's position. After the graduation last year of ace pitcher Catherine Gunther, it would have alarmed few had the Bulldogs taken some time to find their footing this spring.
Instead, junior Samantha Farris - who alternated with Lawson pitching the second game of doubleheaders last season - has joined her mound mate with a perfect 7-0 record this spring, the duo having combined to allow just four runs all season while striking out 141 batters.
"They just go out there and throw it by the batters," said Kendall Patterson, who has the best seat in the house for the nightly shutouts. "They have really good junk, but they're pretty much just going out there with the gas. That's how they're getting the outs."
Meanwhile, the offense hasn't been too shabby, either, as the Bulldogs continue to buy into Ballard Patterson's preferred style of solid, line-drive contact interspersed with the classic "small-ball" approach that's a hallmark of the pitching-dominated sport.
Entering Monday's doubleheader against Silver Lake, four Bulldogs were hitting better than .600, led by freshman Melissa Rome (.722) and rounded out by fellow underclassmen Lawson (.714), Kendall Patterson (.703) and Farris (.612).
With the addition of Monday's 5-0 and 4-0 victories, the consistent contact has allowed McLouth to average 9.6 runs per game - a huge number in its own right, and even more so given the Bulldogs' own stingy pitching staff.
"I didn't expect we'd do this well, especially on offense," Lawson admitted. "I think a big change from last year to this year is we've really stepped up our offensive practice."
While the gaudy numbers and the fact that McLouth's roster largely consists of underclassmen point to sustainable success, the only remaining question for this year's edition is whether an immediate payoff awaits.
Last season, the Bulldogs saw their state run end soon after their arrival with a 1-0 loss to White City in the opening round.
Needless to say, the expectation level is much higher this spring.
"I think that will push us this year," said Kendall Patterson about last year's state setback. "We just had to get there last year, kind of peek our head through the door, and now we've got to step through it."