By CONOR NICHOLL
Rossville finished 19-4 last season under coach John Nitsch. Rossville split early with Santa Fe Trail, lost a pair of one-run games to Silver Lake, and took a heartbreaking 4-2 decision to Rock Creek in the regional final. Rossville had defeated RC twice in the regular season. Rossville led Rock Creek 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh. The Bulldawgs did earn a pair of marquee regular season victories with a sweep against Wamego, the eventual 4A champions.
A Bulldawg alum and longtime summer softball coach, Nitsch knew Rossville should have a quality team in 2022. Rossville carried a team .384 average, along with a .625 slugging percentage. Just two key players graduated. Plus, Rossville added senior Vanesa Quinones, who has signed to play college softball, though hadn’t played in the spring since her freshman season.
“I figured we’d be all right pitching and playing defense, but I was worried if we could score,” Nitsch said.
Rossville returned key players such as Brinley Dyche (.462 average), Caylee Douglas (.366), Emma Mitchell (.431), Kinley Porter (.238), Kinsey Perine (.440) and Ryan Leathers (.277). Plus, Nagos Hale hit .400 with nine doubles but hasn’t played yet in ’22 because of injury. Rossville hit 16 homers as a team. Dyche, Douglas, Mitchell, Porter, Perine and Leathers combined for five.
Many of the Bulldawgs play for Nitsch or Jody Mitchell in the summer. Nitsch has coached softball at some level for more than 25 years. Rossville assistant Ashley Caraway is Nitsch’s niece and holds two Bulldawg school softball records.
“Their bond is unbelievable when it gets into high school,” Nitsch said. “Fun group.”
This season, Douglas is a senior and has started since her freshman year. Dyche is a junior. Hale, Leathers, Mitchell, Perine and Porter are part of a big sophomore class. Dyche is the lone returner who earned all-league recognition. Quinones, a left-handed pitcher, has committed to Corban, an NAIA school in Oregon.
Nitsch expected to manufacture runs through his smaller roster. Douglas is 5-foot-3, Perine 5-6, Dyche 5-4, while Porter and Leathers are each 5-5. Quinones is in the 5-6, 5-7 range.
Mitchell is a superb all-around athlete, especially in basketball, where she currently ranks as the No. 37 prospect in the Class of 2024 and second in 2A, per Robert Kelly of Prep Girls Hoops. Mitchell plays for Wheat State Elite basketball. On Saturday, Kelly noted to SIK that Mitchell “win or lose, up or down big, she plays as hard and as well as she can.”
In practice, Rossville has hit only a few homers. Quinones showed the most power. However, Rossville has delivered an undefeated start in 2022 behind big home run numbers.
“The power has been totally 100 percent a surprise to me,” Nitsch said. “We are a bunch of little bitty, fast girls that figured out how to center up the ball, and they are flying out of the ballpark.”
Rossville has delivered a 12-0 start, including a 6-4 and 8-3 sweep versus Santa Fe Trail on April 1. A week later, the Bulldawgs defeated league foe Wabaunsee, a traditional power, 12-1 and 15-3. On April 11, Rossville faced longtime rival Silver Lake. The Bulldawgs won 10-1, and then delivered a 9-8 win in a back-and-forth second contest. Last Thursday, Rossville swept St. Marys.
Before St. Marys, Rossville had hit 12 homers with a .388 team batting average.
Rossville currently leads Kansas in homers, per MaxPreps and other publicly available softball statistics. Ottawa and Wichita Heights have hit 11, per MaxPreps.
Perine has delivered a .529 average with seven homers. Quinones has a .552 mark with two homers. Porter has two homers and a .433 average. She had a walk-off to beat Silver Lake. Dyche, an under-the-radar player, has one strikeout with a .343 mark.
“Hitting the ball a lot better than I thought we would be at this time of the year,” Nitsch said.
Douglas (.300 average, seven steals) and Perine (12 steals) have ran well. Mitchell has a .552 average and .759 slugging percentage. Leathers (.333) and sophomore Kiera Barber (.292 mark) have been solid players.
The school mark for single season homers is 10, set by Taylor Kirk in 2014 and Sara Shinn in ’17. Perine has emerged as a team leader. Nitsch has had to change the way he has coached “a lot of times” because of the unexpected power.
“I am totally surprised, because I’d figured we would be of a bunt, run…put pressure on the defense,” Nitsch said.
Rossville will play undefeated Wamego at home on May 2 and faces Rock Creek on May 10. The Bulldawgs will likely face similar teams in the Sabetha regional that includes Nemaha Central (7-1), Silver Lake (6-2), Royal Valley (6-3) and Marysville (5-3).
Unlike the large classes, Classes 3A and 2-1A are not seeded for the postseason and instead placed in predetermined sites. Regionals are sometimes loaded and the best teams are generally in the same geographic area. The southeast Kansas regional has three undefeated teams, all in the CNC league with Columbus (11-0), Frontenac (8-0) and Girard (7-0). Rossville is again with much of its Mid-East League brethren.
“I really don’t like it, because it gets tough to beat the same team three times in a year,” Nitsch said.
The CNC trio, Rossville, Scott City (8-0), Cimarron/Ingalls (6-0), and Hoisington/Central Plains (8-0) and defending champion Cheney (5-0) are the lone undefeated 3A teams.
In the previous 10 seasons, Rossville has 159 victories and captured 74 percent of its games. However, the Bulldawgs have had just two state appearances in that stretch, a first-round loss to SL in ’13 and a state runner-up showing in ’17. Rossville has lost four times to Silver Lake in regionals during that 10-year stretch.
“Us and Silver Lake, I think we are two of the top teams in the state out of the eight teams that should be at the state tournament,” Nitsch said. “I don’t like the way they do it, but the cards fall where they fall, and I guess we have got to beat them.”
In the circle, Quinones has worked 30.2 innings and posted a 1.37 earned-run average. She has struck out 35 against three walks.
“Her leadership and her poise,” Nitsch said. “Man, she is just a hard-nosed ball player.”
Dyche has 28.1 innings with a 2.47 ERA and 32 Ks with three walks. Both are left-handed. Dyche was Rossville’s No. 2 pitcher in 2021. Nitsch said the duo throws “about identical” and the team has “all the confidence in the world” in the duo. Dyche is known for her curveball and running it in on the hands, while Quinones has a great change and screwball.
When Quinones is pitching, Perine is catcher, Porter at first, Barber second, Douglas shortstop, and freshman Shyanne Haehn plays third. Leathers is in left, Dyche center and Mitchell in right field.
“They have played like four-year starters, and just stayed pretty relaxed and calm,” Nitsch said.
When Dyche comes into pitch, Leathers catches, Douglas goes to center, Perine to short, Porter to left, and Quinones to first. Nitsch labeled Leathers “a big, big plus.” Plus, Porter can play anywhere except catcher and has seven pitched in the summer.
“When Brinley comes into pitch, we still have good speed in the outfield,” Nitsch said. “Last year, we kind of lacked in that category, because we had to leave Perine behind the plate both games.”
Nitsch has continually told his squad that opponents are going to score. He tries to make circumstances in practice just like games. At first, the Rossville players thought a drill was a little silly.
“We’ve just got to know we can bounce back and come back from anything,” Nitsch said. “We do some silly drills in practice where we put a runner at second, and I’d say, ‘Who wants to hit the winning run?’ And they will hit the ball, and the run scores, we come running out of the dugout screaming and hollering like we won the state title just in practice.”
However, in the second game against Silver Lake, Rossville trailed 4-0 entering the bottom of the first. Rossville, behind four homers, eventually took a 6-4 lead. SL eventually took a 7-6 lead. Porter eventually hit the walk-off solo homer, a shot that elicited a celebration like practice.
“I said, ‘We’ve just got to keep playing our game, and we can bounce back from everything,’” Nitsch said. “And I think this year the kids are starting to buy into more than they did a year ago. They are starting to age and grow a little bit faster than I thought they would.”