By CONOR NICHOLL
Culture and talent: How Wamego softball became elite
Entering 2021, Wamego softball had limited recent success. The Red Raiders went 13-8 in 2018 and 6-14 in 2019.
After the COVID cancellation of 2020, Wamego is 56-8 since – and, along with 5A Valley Center, considered the state’s top-two programs this spring. Collectively from ’21-23, the Red Raiders have been a top-five all-classes program, alongside the likes of longtime powers like Bishop Carroll, Washburn Rural, Frontenac and Cheney.
Wamego finished 20-5 and won the 4A softball title in 2021 with wins against all-sports postseason nemesis Bishop Miege, league rival and state favorite Clay Center and longtime power Garden Plain. Last year, the Red Raiders added elite freshman Peyton Hardenburger, went 23-2 and took third in 4A.
Wamego is 13-1, and barring unforeseen events, will be the No. 1 seed in 4A East later this month. Wamego has allowed 2.4 runs per game. Only two other 4A squads are under four runs per contest: Pratt (1.75) and Eudora (3.25).
“They are a fun group,” fifth-year coach Luke Meyer said. “They are one of the funniest groups of kids I’ve ever been around, but they know when it’s time to turn it on, and to focus, and they can definitely do that.
“Their competitiveness and their drive makes it a little bit easier when I am not having to work to keep them focused on the goal at hand,” he added. “And they still have that in the back of their heads of we let one slip away (at state) last year, and they don’t want to do that again.”
Wamego has its three Division I players/talents: Hardenburger, senior pitcher/third baseman Maya Gallagher and senior shortstop Ashten Pierson. Gallagher is headed to Holy Cross. Pierson, the leadoff hitter, is going to Creighton.
The trio is extremely well-known. Pierson is on the short list for Kansas’ best female athlete. She also helped Wamego to back-to-back state golf titles and was state medalist runner-up last fall. Gallagher and Pierson assisted Wamego basketball to the state final four in ’22 and a No. 1 ranking in 4A this winter. Pierson was MVP of the Cloud County basketball all-star game last month. Wamego has great culture across all sports.
The softball team recently celebrated Mrs. Karen Gray, an Army veteran, longtime Wamego substitute teacher and Red Raider athletics supporter. On May 2, Wamego named former player Ryann Alderson the team MVP. Alderson, a key multi-sport athlete and ’22 graduate, had a family tragedy on April 25, 2022 when her older brother, Kyler, passed away from a work-related accident.
“I really, really enjoy this group of athletes for sure,” Meyer said.
Hardenburger, the reigning 4A pitcher of the year, carries a .641 average and 10 extra base hits into Friday. Hardenburger is believed to be around 68 to 70 miles per hour and is considered a high-end Division I recruit. Her 16-under travel team includes the elite sophomores/juniors in the region, including Santa Fe Trail’s Kaelee Washington (KU commit) and Olathe Northwest’s Kendall Yarnell (Central Florida commit)
“She is flourishing really well,” Meyer said.
A complete team
Pierson has a .595 average, nine doubles, two triple and four homers. Gallagher has a .419 average with four homers. Pierson has not made an error this season.
However, SIK wanted to look at the other key players, positions and framework outside of the star trio. The entire team has quickly made Wamego a colossus in Kansas softball.
Wamego has played a challenging schedule that includes two wins apiece against Royal Valley, Rock Creek, Clay Center, Concordia, Marysville and Silver Lake. On May 1, Wamego split with Rossville with a 3-2 win and a 16-4 loss. On April 25, Wamego defeated Silver Lake, 3-0 and 6-2, the Eagles’ lone two defeats this season.
Wamego is ranked No. 1 in 4A in the statewide softball media poll. In the latest MaxPreps statistical rankings, Wamego is No. 1 for all classes with a top-five strength of schedule among the top teams.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Meyer said. “For me, it’s never about accolades. It’s about being a part of something, and relationships and wins and championships outside of that are all secondary. Teaching them to be good human beings and good people in their communities and being good role models is huge for me.
“We’ll never, in the end, be judged by our wins and losses and on top of that, these girls, this senior class is a special group if you look at Wamego athletics in general. These girls have really changed the dynamics for Wamego and athletics,” he added. “And it’s their work ethic, and it’s their strive for excellence and wanting to be the top team in whether it’s golf, basketball, volleyball, it doesn’t matter with these girls. They want to compete, and they want to be the best, and they are not afraid of hard work.”
When not playing Wamego, Rock Creek is 9-5, Clay Center is 11-3, Royal Valley 14-4, Rossville 11-3 and Silver Lake 14-0. (records entering Friday).
Entering 2023, Wamego needed to replace a four-year starter at first base, a two-year starter at second base and two key outfielders.
“We’ve got some returners that have been highly talked about, but we lost some big numbers last year,” Meyer said.
1.Wamego’s two catchers
Wamego has consistently used two catchers, which is somewhat unique, especially among top teams. This occurred in 2021 and ‘22, too.
Kyra Olberding catches Hardenburger, and Jordan Diehl handles Gallagher. In some of the younger pre-high school ranks, Olberding had experience catching Hardenburger, and Diehl the same with Gallagher.
“They know each other from previous,” Meyer said. “And been around each other, and a little bit of comfort level there for each one of them.”
In 2021, Gallagher was the ace on Wamego’s state title team, and Diehl served as the catcher for her. Emma Meyer caught Haley Asbury.
Gallagher earned a bevy of honors and was a SIK Finalist for 4A Player of the Year. Gallagher worked 89 innings and posted a 2.12 ERA with 111 strikeouts against six walks.
Hardenburger entered high school last season and did not allow an earned run until state. In 81 innings, Hardenburger posted a 0.35 ERA with 182 strikeouts against 20 walks. Gallagher worked 75 innings with 109 Ks versus nine walks and posted a 2.05 ERA.
The two catchers split time. Then, Diehl handled the catching at the 2022 state tournament. However, they have again shared duties in 2023. Both are known for defense and softball acumen. Meyer calls the pitches.
“Both are really hard workers,” Meyer said. “I think they know the game.”
They combined for just 55 at-bats last spring. However, Diehl turned a double play, had four assists and no errors. Olberding committed just two errors.
In the season’s first 12 games, Olberding had 91 chances and two errors with no passed balls. Diehl had zero errors and three passed balls. Olberding is a sophomore, Diehl a senior. Diehl has significantly upped her average to .350. Olberding has eight at-bats this season.
“Kyra is somebody who is up and coming,” Meyer said. “She is going to be huge for us in the future. She is solid for us now. Catching Peyton is no easy task. She has got a lot of movement on her pitches. Not many girls see that, so it takes some practice. So they work together a lot, and next year we expect her bat to kind of come along and be a big key for us.”
The velocity of Gallagher and especially Hardenburger helps slow other team’s running games. Wamego has allowed only a few stolen bases.
In the team’s first 73 innings, Hardenberger worked 39. She permitted six hits and four walks. She struck out 101 of the 131 batters she faced. Gallagher has again shown pinpoint control and relied more on her defense. In 34 innings, she has 36 strikeouts against two walks and a 1.03 ERA.
“More of it is just being able to manage the game,” Meyer said of the catchers. “Knowing when I am calling pitches, where we want them located, and where to set up, and kind of getting in the flow of the game from behind the plate.”
2. Player development: Jessi Ebert at first base; Emma Erickson has delivered at second base; Kyla McAdam batting through injuries
Meyer has been highly pleased with progression from first baseman Jessi Ebert, second baseman Emma Erickson and outfielder Kyla McAdam.
“Just kept working,” Meyer said.
All could have potentially started on most high school teams last season, though were blocked by experienced seniors. Wamego had to replace 44 percent of its hits from 2022.
“It was great to watch girls kind of attack those spots and compete,” Meyer said.
Senior second baseman Emma Erickson has batted second, sandwiched between Pierson, Hardenburger, Gallagher, and Trista Hoobler, the starting centerfielder. Hoobler has committed to Division II Fort Lewis basketball. On Thursday, Hoobler earned one of the 24 spots on the all-classes Kansas Basketball Coaches Association all-star game roster.
Softball-wise, Hoobler split time as a sophomore and started last season. She was the lone returning outfield starter this spring.
Erickson has one of the lower batting averages, though has 13 putouts (second among non-catchers), just two errors, four stolen bases and 10 runs scored (fourth-best).
She has helped Wamego post strong defensive numbers. In 2021, Wamego had a defensive efficiency of 59.4 percent (balls in play that are turned into outs), per MaxPreps statistics and SIK research. Last season, Wamego was at 62.3 percent. This year, the Red Raiders stand at 61.8 percent entering Friday. Anything above 60 percent in high school softball is very strong.
“She has kind of come up through the ranks,” Meyer said of Erickson. “From her freshman, sophomore year, she ran a little bit for us.”
Last year, Erickson had sparing playing time through some injuries and served as the designated hitter some. She recorded four plate appearances as a sophomore and 32 last season. Erickson has 47 plate appearance in the first 12 games and has exceeded nearly all her stats from the last two years combined.
“She just bought into our program and bought into our team and just whatever we’ve needed, you can count on her to do it to the best of her ability and give it 100 percent effort,” Meyer said.
Senior first baseman Jessi Ebert logged just three varsity at-bats before this season. She has stepped into the starting lineup with five hits and four RBI. Ebert replaced a four-year starter at first base.
“Her and Emma Erickson are kind of one and the same,” Meyer said. “…Progress, staying in the program, stay invested, buying her time and having a really good senior year.”
McAdam broke a bone in her foot sophomore year and missed the season. Last year, McAdam tore her ACL in basketball. This is her first spring of high school softball. McAdam has played pretty of ball on the travel circuit. She hit .333, including a homer, in her first 24 at-bats. Marissa Uhrich has started in right field.
3. Overcoming injury: the rise of sophomore left fielder Arabell Razzano
Possibly the biggest surprise for Wamego this season came with sophomore left fielder Arabell Razzano. Wamego coaches saw how she competed in JV games and her improvement. Meyer has normally had the JV and varsity practice together.
“She has had a lot of upside,” Meyer said.
They moved her up in a pair of shutouts against Marysville on April 18. She went 3 of 7 with 3 RBI. On April 25, Wamego had its highly anticipated doubleheader against Silver Lake. Wamego was ranked No. 1 in 4A, Silver Lake first in 3A. She finished 3 of 6 with 3 RBI.
“Fills a really good spot out in left field,” Meyer said.
She had a key RBI hit in the 3-0 win to give Wamego its final margin. In the second game, Razzano split her chin open.
“They kind of glued her chin back,” Meyer said. “Put a band-aid on it, came in and turned around and got a double and opened that game up for us. Tough kid, and she has kind of been an up and comer for us.”
4. Wamego is an excellent defensive team
Wamego’s top-two pitchers, Gallagher and Hardenburger, are also the team’s best third baseman. They can jump on the ball quickly on bunts. They each cover the position well in the circle, too. In practice, Wamego works on live bunting against the JV squad.
“We spend a lot of time hitting, but we spend even more time working on our team defense,” Meyer said.
Meyer knew Silver Lake was “going to bunt a lot” and has “really good team speed.” Wamego focused on ground balls and quick exchanges versus the Eagles. Wamego made 16 outs in the field against Silver Lake when Gallagher pitched. On balls in play this season, Wamego doesn’t have a marked defensive difference this year whether Gallagher or Hardenburger is pitching.
“Our girls played our game plan out perfectly,” Meyer said. “Maya Gallagher did a great job of hitting her spots and putting the ball where they couldn’t do much with it, and when we needed our gloves, they were spot on.”