After finishing one win shy of a state championship, the Ripley High softball team is back on the diamond and ready to get back to Oklahoma City in less than two months.
The Lady Warriors returned to the Class A state tournament last year after qualifying for it the previous year. They not only made noise in OKC, they brought home the silver ball trophy.
But it wasn’t the gold ball they wanted. Amber-Pocasset won the state title with a 5-1 win in the championship game.
“We were so close,” Ripley coach Kaleb Hoffman said. “It was 1-1 in the sixth inning of the state finals. It was right there where it could have gone either direction. We gained valuable experience from it.”
Ripley graduated four players from that squad. Three of those were all-state selections, and the other was a four-year starter who will be playing college basketball this year.
For the returning players, coming so close to the coveted state title has them fired up for the 2019 season, which officially began Monday night for the Lady Warriors.
“When you have to stand there and watch someone else dog pile and hoist the state championship trophy, I think that lights a fire in your belly,” Hoffman said. “You feel very proud of the accomplishments you’ve achieved, but you always want that next step. I feel like with this group, and the way they’ve showed up and the focus about them all summer, I can tell they would like to go on a run to put themselves in position at the end of the season where we have a chance.
“We return a lot of players who were key impact players on last year’s team. We brought up some kids who are very talented. A few kids moved in and we have a few kids that have been within our program that are ready to step up and fill varsity roles.”
Through the first few weeks of the preseason, Hoffman has been pleased with this year’s team and the number of players who can contribute on the varsity level. That was his biggest takeaway from the practices through late last week.
“One thing we’ve tried to build our program around is having a lot of depth and having a lot of kids who can play a lot of positions,” Hoffman said. “If one person goes down, we need to have people ready to step up and fill those roles. I feel like the way things look so is a compliment to that depth that we’ve been building. I still feel like we’re going to be a very deep roster. I have 10-12 kids that can get in the lineup and make an impact.”
Ripley lost starting pitcher Riley Payne, but has a few options this year. One of those is Betty Wolfe, with the other two being underclassmen. All three will likely see time this season.
“We’re going to have three girls that contribute a lot for us in the circle,” Hoffman said. “We’ve got a junior in Betty Wolfe. She gives us a different look from the left side, and she’ll throw a lot of innings for us. We also have a sophomore and she’ll throw some innings for us.
“We brought up a freshman and her sister graduated last year and was an all-stater, and she’ll throw a lot of innings for us, as well. We’ve got good pitching depth with three of them, and I think we’ll be able to keep them all fresh to where at the end of the year, nobody is ran into the ground.”
The Lady Warriors’ infield and outfield isn’t set yet, but instead will be a rotating cast for a while. That’s where the added depth becomes a positive factor.
“We have 11-12 players who have rotating different spots and giving us different looks,” Hoffman said. “Honestly, it’s going to come down to who just swings it the best, but it’s nice to have that many kids who can fill spots and you feel comfortable putting them there and not having to hide anybody.”
Hoffman reiterated the depth and and unselfishness of the girls have helped create a positive environment that he hopes will lead to success this fall.
“One thing about our program that we really believe in and that we buy into is everybody just doing their role for that day,” Hoffman said. “We’ve got a lot of versatile kids. We’ve got a lot of kids who can hit top of the lineup, middle of the lineup or bottom of the lineup and generate runs. Then we’ve got a lot of kids who can play multiple positions.
“I feel like one quality of our program is a lot of unselfish kids who are willing to play wherever they need to or hit wherever they need to in order to make our team successful. When you have kids of that mindset, I feel like it gives you a good chance. It creates a good, positive culture.”
Before Monday’s season opener, Hoffman actually gave his team a day off Friday. He said the work they’ve done, along with their incredible focus and energy, was a good reason to give them an extra day before the weekend.
“They are definitely ready,” Hoffman said. “I think they were shocked about me giving them the day off. This is probably the last weekend we’re going to have off for a while, so I went ahead and gave them the weekend off.”
The Lady Warriors will host a large tournament this weekend that includes many top teams from around the state. It will begin Thursday and end Saturday.