By CONOR NICHOLL
AJ Terry has guided a big turnaround with Pittsburg softball, including three straight conference titles and the school’s first state berth since 2002 this spring. The Purple Dragons had struggling seasons from ’12-15, generally with very few wins. From ’16-19, Pittsburg went 9-12, 4-16, 9-12 and 7-14.
After the COVID-cancelled 2020 season, Terry, a former PHS baseball coach, became a softball assistant. Pittsburg started two freshmen, Kali Terry at third base and Mya Russell in the middle infield.
A pair of then-freshmen, Georgia Boekhout and Roary Hunziker, logged most of the time at pitcher. Boekhout delivered a nice season, including a no-hitter and a 1.74 earned-run average in her first 31 innings. Pittsburg doubled its win total to 14-7 and won the SEK championship. Weather wreaked havoc on regional week, and the Purple Dragons had its year end against De Soto in very rainy conditions.
Then, Karen Curran retired after 32 years of teaching and coaching, including head softball coach. AJ Terry took over as head coach. During the junior high years, many of the girls played for Terry in travel softball or on the other in-town travel squad. Terry has highly stressed execution and fun and helped raise the importance of softball in the school district.
Pittsburg finished 13-6 and again won conference. The Purple Dragons won its first regional game since ’07 in a 5-4 victory on a walk-off hit from Kali Terry. Pittsburg fell in the regional championship to Topeka Seaman. Terry and Hunziker collected first team unanimous all-league. Maddie Burdick was second team.
This year, the Purple Dragons have no seniors, though a highly experienced group. Pittsburg set goals to win conference, host a regional for the first time in 16 years and reach state for the third time ever. PHS’ lone state showings came in ’00 and ’02. To host a regional, PHS needed to finish in the top-4 in 5A East.
The Purple Dragons opened 6-2 with a pair of competitive losses. The stretch included an 11-0 win against Coffeyville on April 17. Coffeyville highly struggled and finished its year with 14 straight losses. The next day, Pittsburg played Columbus, a significant 3A title contender and eventual CNC champs, in a non-league doubleheader.
“We were not ready to play against Columbus,” Terry said. “That was my fault completely.”
Pittsburg fell 12-2 and 10-0. In the 12-2 contest, Columbus put its first nine batters on base and scored nine runs in the first inning.
“We had taken a different approach to prepare for (Coffeyville) the night before,” Terry said. “It definitely was an eye-opener. I think it was definitely a ‘Look, this is the way you have to be ready every game, every day.”
Terry reminded Pittsburg of its goals, which helped spark the girls. Pittsburg responded with six straight wins, including a pair against College Heights Christian, a Missouri team that finished 18-6-1. On May 6, Pittsburg took a competitive 5-0 loss to 6A Shawnee Mission North and Kelsey Hoekstra, possibly Kansas’ best pitcher and high-level Division I talent.
On the same day, Pittsburg defeated 6A Shawnee Mission South, 6-5, on a walk-off homer from Burdick. PHS twice came back. Megan Johnston pitched a complete game, and drove in five runs, including a grand slam.
“You never know how many back-to-backs you’ll have or rainouts, or things you can’t control,” Terry said. “You have just got to be ready for anything, and we issued a challenge.”
Three days later, Pittsburg faced Labette County for the league title. LC won the first contest, 5-4. Pittsburg smoked three homers in the second, Johnston threw another complete game, and the Purple Dragons won 16-2. Pittsburg finished 8-2 in league, LC 9-3. The wins secured a regional host.
On May 16, Pittsburg earned a state berth for the first time in 21 years with a 2-1 win against Lansing and 7-1 versus Bonner Springs. After the Columbus losses, Pittsburg finished 10-2 and carries a 16-6 record into the 5A state tournament at Wichita State University.
The No. 6 seed Purple Dragons face third-seeded Valley Center (20-2) at 5 p.m. next Thursday. VC is the defending state champion. No. 2 Basehor-Linwood (20-2) is also on the bottom half and is the back-to-back state runner-up. In 6A and 5A softball, 13 of the 16 regional hosts advanced to state.
“They did a very good job of turning the course around,” Terry said.
Terry said Pittsburg puts an “execution tag on everything” and has the motto of “all gas, no brakes” at practice. Terry has enjoyed listening to the girls talk about execution.
“The way we practice, and the way we operate, there’s an execution factor in there, and you don’t execute, I hate to use the word consequences, but there’s a reminder of why we execute, and it’s all about discipline and working hard,” Terry said.
The conversation has come in the dugout or when they hit outside of practice, like on the weekends or evenings.
“They would talk about how we needed to move runners over and what we needed to do, and they would put an execution tag on it,” he said.
In a recent game, a player told Terry “give me something to execute” just before she stepped into the batters box. Terry gave her an execution, and she accomplished it perfectly. When she got to first base, she pointed to Terry in recognition.
The No. 3 batter, Johnston has delivered a huge season with a .559 average, 34 extra base hits, nine homers and 40 RBI. She’s carried a recent hot streak in the pitching circle and worked a five-hit complete game against Bonner Springs in the regional title. Overall, she has a 5-1 record in 30 innings. She broke a 1-1 tie in the sixth against Lansing with a homer.
“She’s an intense player for us,” Terry said. “She is a very serious player. She is very competitive. She eats, sleeps and breathes this stuff, and it is on her mind all the time. A player like that, we just kind of have to pull the reins back a little bit, but I think I kind of want players like that rather than have players that I have to put things in front of them and give them a little bit more motivation to try to get there.”
The right-handed Hunziker worked a complete game against Lansing with zero walks. In 66 innings, she has 78 strikeouts and 13 walks. She is 6-4 with a 2.70 ERA. Boekhout has worked 35.2 innings with a 5-1 record and 3.14 earned-run average.
Burdick has taken over at catcher and batted cleanup with a .418 average and six homers. Elle Slaughter graduated after she started her entire career and picked up second team all-league catcher. Slaughter signed with Labette CC softball. Burdick had previously played center field. Coach Terry noted her overall strength and athletic ability and called her a “natural born catcher.” Burdick has a great arm and blocks balls well.
“She is a workhorse,” coach Terry said.
Russell switched to second base after the past two seasons at shortstop. She plays for the well-known Peppers travel softball organization. The leadoff hitter, Russell carries a .394 average with more than 80 percent her hits singles. Known for her intelligence, Russell can hit, bunt, take pre-pitch reads and is a very smart baserunner.
“She’s probably our leader on the field defensively,” Terry said. “Probably the smartest softball IQ player I have.”
The outfield has multiple newcomers.
Heather Mowdy has played first base, Gabbie White has stepped in as the designated player, Alyssa Cosens in left field, Sierra Deierling in center field and Brooklynn Ryan at shortstop. Coach Terry said Bree Huebner has done “a remarkable job in right field.” Huebner, known for her defense, has saved multiple runs with running down balls in the gaps and foul lines. Deierling is also known for her speed and defense.
“When their number has been called…they have stepped up,” coach Terry said.
Kali Terry is coach Terry’s daughter and the No. 5 hitter. She is hitting over .350. When she was starting out, father-daughter went over to a church lot beside their house and worked on hitting.
Since middle school, AJ has coached his daughter whether as head or assistant. He always reminded her: “If you can hit the ball Kali, they will find a place for you to play.” Kali is a two-time SIK second team all-state pick – and made more memories this spring with her dad and teammates.
“Doing some things that some people may not get to,” coach Terry said. “There is something different when you can take your kid to the ball park, and you can stand on third base (coaching box), and you can watch her go out and do her thing and just watch her compete. That’s a little bit better seat in the house than out behind the fence or in the stands.”