By CONOR NICHOLL
Softball has enveloped Sheri Patteson since she was a youngster. For many years, Patteson watched her family play the sport. She graduated from Goddard in 1998 and completed schooling at Wichita State. Around a decade ago, Patteson moved 85 miles west on US-400 to Howard, population 668 and home of West Elk High School.
Soon after she came to the area, Patteson led a coach pitch youth team through the Howard rec. Juli Young, who then served as West Elk’s principal, approached Patteson after a game. Young asked Patteson if she was interested in helping with the WE high school softball program.
Patteson came on as assistant. West Elk didn’t even have a field her first season on staff. She eventually took over as head coach. Throughout the years, Patteson has kept her coaching duties through the rec.
This season, several Patriots on the high school team have played for Patteson since they were in elementary school. West Elk includes multiple small towns, including Elk Falls, Moline, Severy and Grenola. Some WE players come from non-Howard towns and play against Patteson in the summer.
“There’s nothing I want to do more than teach kids how to play softball,” Patteson said.
West Elk posted a 6-14 season in ’19. After COVID cancelled 2020, the Patriots went 6-15 last year. WE returned every player and added pitcher Shay Toon, who was key for Central Burden’s 16-6 season last spring.
Helped by the returners and excellent team chemistry, West Elk has enjoyed the single biggest turnaround in Kansas softball from 2021 to ’22 for all classifications. Sports In Kansas ran records for all 230-plus schools that had softball. Archives provided by KSHSAA, Kansas Pregame, and Gamechanger/MaxPreps, among other sites. Records as of Thursday night.
Patteson said this season marked the best chemistry and bonding she has had at West Elk.
“This year has really just been about just synergy in general with all of my kids,” Patteson said. “The truth is, I don’t single out players. I don’t like to do that. I think it works against everything that I stand for and it’s nine players on the field and all of them have to be working together, and all of them have to have each other’s back and that’s what we have.”
West Elk has vaulted to 18-1 (94.7 winning percentage), the most wins in Patteson’s tenure. The plus-64.7 winning percentage bests Bishop Ward, McPherson, Wichita Heights, Mulvane and Newton. Ward went from 4-15 to 13-4 in Class 3A.
In 5A, McPherson improved from 8-13 to 17-3. Class 6A Heights bumped from 3-18 to 10-8. Class 4A Mulvane, noted on SIK several times this spring, tripled its win total from 4-17 to 12-8.
Mulvane was winless in 2019 and won seven games in ’18, eight in ’17 and three in ‘16. The Wildcats have its first winning record a state berth since ’15. Mulvane owns two wins against Kingman and one versus Cheney this year. Those are the only losses for Kingman. Cheney stands at 17-3. Mulvane stole 64 bases in its first 16 games. Addison Mackey is batting .520. Jalin Lavers is 7-5 with a 3.04 ERA with 101 strikeouts in 69 innings, per Mulvane Athletics.
Newton, led by a veteran group of seniors and standout two-way junior Tegan Livesay (200-plus strikeouts, 11 HR), has gone from 11-11 to 18-2 and an AVCTL Division I title. (more on Newton in the coming days on SIK).
Sterling and Chapman were a combined 2-38 last season and have a collective 16-20 mark this year. Top-20 turnarounds include Shawnee Mission North, seeded first in 6A East at 18-1 after a 14-8 season a year ago.
Regional start Monday. West Elk picked up the top seed in the Burden-Central regional after it won the South Central Border League title. Oxford, which split with West Elk on April 4, is 13-2. Burden-Central is 12-5. Belle Plaine, a state qualifier last spring, stands at 8-8.
“Our synergy is really good,” Patteson said. “We are cohesive, we are working together. It’s evident in practice. It’s evident in school during the day. It’s evident obviously on the field when we are playing ball games. So yeah, that’s what has done it for us honestly.”
West Elk has enjoyed recent success in volleyball and girls’ basketball. WE volleyball is a collective 68-33 in the last three falls. Patriot girls’ basketball, under longtime coach Dave Miller, has six straight winning seasons. Several softball players were key in volleyball.
Junior catcher Harlee Town bats leadoff. Junior shortstop Karly Kill hits second. Five-foot-11 junior Katy Beeman plays third base and hits third. Senior center fielder Lydia Woods is fourth. Sophomore second baseman Makaila Gillespie is fifth, Toon sixth.
Junior left fielder Macy Haag is seventh, and senior third baseman Savannah Harrod eighth. Sophomore right fielder Savannah Stroot is the backup pitcher. Woods, Towns and Kill were all-league softball in 2021. Kill and Woods served as volleyball captains. Some of the girls play travel summer ball in Winfield, the rest play for or against Patteson.
“They know each other like the back of their hand,” Patteson said. “A lot of them have been playing together for a long time.”
Starting on Mother’s Day, Patteson had her yearly addition of more teams. Currently, she is coaching three squads: a peewee squad of eight to 11 years old, a Little League group from 12-15 and the high school group. All three share the one field in Howard. Patteson keeps the rec and high school teams separate, especially with school remains in session. Generally the rec teams practice on the weekends.
“Just be out there and just the camaraderie, and just the little girls, and their bright little blue eyes looking at you wanting to learn,” Patteson said.
The high school team opened with a key doubleheader win, 13-8 and 10-5, against Central-Burden on March 28. WE received contributions throughout the lineup. Town registered four hits and Haag delivered three RBI. Toon pitched 4.2 innings, Stroot 2.1. In the other game, Woods had four hits, while Toon threw a complete game with nine strikeouts, according to C-B’s GameChanger boxscore.
“She has got backup,” Patteson said of Toon. “And she knows that she is going to throw the ball hard, and she is going to throw the ball with movement, and we are just all there for each other, and it’s everywhere. It’s evident…on the playing field, at school, everywhere, these girls have each other’s back.”
Patteson noticed the closeness in the initial games. Patteson said it’s not formal activities, just a team “hanging out in general.”
“It feels really organic to me,” she said.
The girls get together for breakfast. Moms have brought meals in between games. A mom brought pizza after a game to celebrate a birthday. The team held an impromptu birthday party for an assistant coach after practice.
West Elk beat Oxford, 18-3, and took a 7-5 loss. Since then, the Patriots have scored in double figures every contest, outside of a 4-2 win on April 21. It’s yielded an historic improvement for the Patriots and a highly rare state berth. KSHSAA archives list no state softball berths for Patriot softball. WE baseball has two state berths in recent history, second place in ’07 and a quarterfinal loss in ’18.
“The main thing, early on, you automatically notice that kids are getting along with each other, the support,” Patteson said. “I can’t say it enough, the synergy and the support that these girls have for each other, and it’s everywhere.”