For Notre Dame softball seniors, last chance at state looms

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Notre Dame softball team learned a couple of things last year when it earned a trip to the Class 3 final four before falling to Warrenton in the state championship game. First and foremost, don't steal pillows.

"Some girls stole some [hotel] pillows last year and they got caught on the way over to the field," Notre Dame senior outfielder Abby Rollet says. "[Coach Jeff] Graviett was like, 'I'm not mad, but whoever stole the pillows, you're going to have your parents take them back.' We got pillows as presents before we left, and the pillows weren't the best -- sorry, parents. The hotel's pillows were amazing."

It wasn't a shining moment for the Bulldogs, but neither was what happened when they showed up at the field, falling to Warrenton 12-2 in six innings.

What lesson did that drubbing hand out?

"That we want to beat Warrenton," Rollet says with smile.

Notre Dame Regional High School seniors prepare for a return trip o the state championship on Friday.
Laura Simon

"That feeling of losing in the state championship -- being so close but being so far away -- it's remarkable how much of a mark it leaves on you."

Now Notre Dame is back. Thanks to a talented senior class that goes nine deep, the Bulldogs returned a bevy of experience for the 2016 season, and they've used it to reach their destiny -- a return trip to state, as ND (23-5) is set to face Sullivan (21-10) in a semifinal at 1 p.m. Friday at the Killian Sports Complex in Springfield, Missouri.

It has been clear from the beginning that anything less would be unacceptable.

"I don't think we would have settled for anything less," Rollet says.

It has been the know-how and want-to of that senior group -- Rollet, Morgan Duschell, Lily Dohogne, Payton Friga, Lindsey Elfrink, Ellie Retz, Holly Reinagel, Sydney Newell and Adrianna Landewee -- that have led the Bulldogs back, even if it wasn't easy.

The Bulldogs may have been their own worst enemy this fall, as the expectations they placed upon themselves made for a target that was simple to identify but complex to achieve. Before Notre Dame could return to state, it had to climb the ladder again.

"We talked early on that there wasn't a button we could push; there was nothing we could do to fast-forward us to a state championship game," Notre Dame coach Jeff Graviett says. "We had to take care of everything one at a time. They had to trust that we, as coaches, had an idea of where we wanted to be at the end of the year and keep working every day to achieve that.

"I don't think there was anything more evident than Saturday [in the quarterfinal win over Union]. We spent a lot of time working on facing those types of pitchers because you're going to run across them, and we were prepared for it. The girls bought in, and we had great execution. The big thing was getting them to realize that first you have districts. Nothing you can do to get to that point but to play one game at a time. So far they've been good at that, and hopefully it will continue."

FRED LYNCH ~ Notre Dame second baseman Payton Friga throws to first baseman Sydney Newell for the final out against Union in a Class 3 state quarterfinal Saturday. The pair is a part of a nine-player senior class.
Fred Lynch

The girls echo the "fast-forward" sentiment word for word, but admit that maybe they lost sight of it at times early in the season. By the time it mattered, though, they had realized the task at hand.

Along the way, Notre Dame has compiled a 23-5 record. It lost to Warrenton early in the season, this time just 3-0. The Warriors (25-1) face Smithville (21-8) in the other state semifinal, so the Bulldogs still may have a shot at revenge and redemption.

With an offense featuring power -- Rollet has matched a program single-season record with nine home runs -- and speed while averaging 9.4 runs per game, and a defense that has been its backbone and has helped Retz find success in her first season as the No. 1 pitcher, the Bulldogs have all the pieces to succeed. Now they just need to finish the job.

"It's probably going to come down to the defense," Graviett says. "When it comes to this time of year, as good as we've been on offense and as good as [pitcher] Ellie [Retz] has been lately, really our bread and butter is our defense. We've got to make plays. We've got to make the routine plays and throw in a couple of spectacular ones."

The coach sees his squad's veteran tilt as a way to, he hopes, settle the nerves and avoid an early disaster akin to last year, when the Bulldogs gave up five runs in the first inning and never recovered. Both Rollet and Dohogne cited the team's inability to maintain its energy a year ago as a major pitfall. The former specifically called the early drop in enthusiasm a major regret.

Now Notre Dame has experience from which to pull. That will come in handy in the semifinal, when it faces a Sullivan side that has far less experience. The Bulldogs are counting on their nine seniors being a difference maker in their favor.

"It looks like [Sullivan] is young," Graviett says. "Some of their better players are freshmen. It looks like they're going to start another freshman on the mound. One of their better hitters is a freshman. They've got one senior at the top of the order. So it will be an inexperienced team, and that's what we've got to take advantage of; that's something we'll bring in over them. We need to try to put the pressure on them and relax.

"Any time you can put as many seniors on the field as we have, that's an advantage. It's not as much a maturity thing with girls as boys, but it's a mental maturity thing. They've been there, done that, and have four good summers behind them of playing at a high level. Nothing should intimidate them. And you get that little sense of urgency at the end."

Notre Dame Regional High School seniors prepare for a return trip o the state championship on Friday.
Laura Simon

If you pull aside any of the nine seniors -- eight of whom are starters -- the phrase that pops up continuously is "this is it."

It's true in multiple senses -- this is the stage Notre Dame has been working to get back to, and, for its core, it is the final stage. In two days time, the senior class will have played its final game in a Bulldog uniform. That much is known. All that's left to be determined is whether the tears that soak those uniforms will be of joy or pain.

"I remember the losing part and how much I hated it," Dohogne says. "I remember the crying and it was just like, ugh, it felt so bad. I just don't want to repeat that feeling again because I remember that most of all.

"Last year our goal was just to make it to state. This year our goal is to win it. We know that we can do it, we just have to set our mind to it. We know what it's like to be there, and now we know we want to completely finish it."

The thought of finishing off the job inspires a funny reaction from the Bulldogs. After days and weeks -- close to 365 and 52, to be exact -- of pondering that very thing, it's still an impossible concept to comprehend. When the idea of walking off the field as state champions is brought up, Rollet sighs and looks out at the practice field; Dohogne blushes and grins as she speaks, adding, "That makes me happy thinking about that;" Duschell shakes her head and laughs, as if she knows something no one else does.

What they all know is that this is it.

"We're experiencing a lot of lasts lately, and it's really kind of surreal," Rollet says. "Really, it's about having fun for us now. There's not a chance we're going to do anything like this ever again as a team, all together. Everybody just wants to make it last.

Notre Dame Regional High School senior catcher Morgan Duschell prepares for her final trip to the state championship.
Laura Simon

"I feel like going there last year and getting that feeling of losing, all the girls have grown up with the [seniors from last year], and there was a sense of loss. Now ... we know it's our turn. We're going to lose that soon, just like they lost it, and I don't think we want to lose that quite yet."

The entire team has a sense of closeness that Duschell likens to "21 sisters fighting over one bathroom," but the nine seniors in particular have been through the ups and downs together.

"I've been playing with most of these girls since I was 12," Dohogne says. "We've kind of grown up together, and it's really cool to experience all of this with them.

"I think we all realize this is it. When that set in, it was very much a group-focused effort."

In many ways, the focus has been there since the class entered the program -- one with some history of success, but also one that hasn't been to the final four since 2010 and hasn't won a state title since 2009. That focus has been honed through the years, sharpened on disappointment.

By the time Notre Dame had reached the championship game in 2015, many of the girls thought it was their year. They could feel it.

As Duschell warmed up pitcher Haylie Santos in the bullpen ahead of the game, things just felt right. Not long after, it was all wrong.

"You know like the League of Their Own movie?," Duschell says. "Jimmy Dugan is like, 'We're gonna win!' after he hit the little kid in the face with the glove. That's how I felt. Like, 'There's no way we can lose.' Then the runs started adding up, and it was like, 'Gosh, I never want to feel this way again.'

JOSH MLOT ~ Notre Dame senior Ellie Retz has taken on the responsibility of being the Bulldogs No. 1 pitcher in 2016.

"I don't want to say we're going to win, but it's like, how can we lose? All of our connections -- I feel it when we practice and when we play. All of our hearts are on the field."

Their pillows, on the other hand, may stay in the hotel this time.

"There's always something that happens," Graviett says, laughing. "Sometimes, as the coach, you don't want to know what happens. But it's a lot of fun.

"I just like this group. I think we're playing well right now, and we're hungry. ... We've got nine girls who want to leave a legacy here, and as far as they're concerned, they know they have a short window of opportunity to do it. I think they'll take advantage of it."

For the nine Notre Dame seniors, this is it. One last chance to go out with a bang. Or something much fluffier. The choice is theirs.

"We've all kind of joked about taking the pillows and not getting caught again this year," Duschell says. "We might have to figure something else out this year."

Like how to bring home not just pillows, but also one more win.

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