Entering the 2018 season, the Montezuma-Cortez High School softball program hadn’t had a winning season in well over a decade.
Now the program can’t stop that winning feeling.
Four consecutive seasons north of .500, including the past two under the guidance of Anthony “Hippo” Frost, have created a new level of expectation for M-CHS softball.
In that span, the Panthers advanced to the 3A state tournament three times, including a program-best trip to the quarterfinals a season ago.
With the graduation of seven starters from that squad, it’d be easy to expect a step backward for the Panthers – but that’s not what Frost and his blossoming program have in mind.
A visit to Englehart Field in the opening days of the preseason gives an impression of what the shift in the program has done to the interest level around the hallways of all the area schools – who feed into the M-CHS squad. Scattered across the diamond, more than two dozen young women work on their swing and practice fielding pop-ups.
With these unprecedented numbers, Frost and his program look to continue the current trend for years to come.
As for this year’s group, a pair of returning starters – seniors Lizzie Likes of M-CHS and Rylee Hickman of Dove Creek – look to pick up right where they left off.
Likes will fill in the ace role for the pitching staff, while Hickman anchors the infield from her shortstop position. Batting three-four in the Panther order, the duo have assumed the roles as leaders for an otherwise youthful starting nine.
“They’re great leaders for our younger girls,” said Frost of his top two returners. “They lead the team through all of practices both vocally and by example.”
The Panthers other two seniors, Shea Fernandez and Tara Glover, join a sophomore-heavy group looking to make their mark in the field and at the plate.
Junior Kayce Tom earned a reputation as one of the most feared bats in the district during her breakout sophomore season and looks to provide the Panthers stability from one of the corner infield positions.
“We’re known for our hitting,” said Frost, “and we want our girls to be aggressive at the plate. We’re excited because we have solid hitters all over the lineup.”
Behind Likes, the Panthers will turn to a rotation of pitchers that will see their varsity debuts in the circle this season.
“They’re all capable of throwing strikes,” said Frost of his available options, “and they can trust that they have a solid defense behind them.”
Behind the plate, sophomore Emily Carver has emerged as a calming presence for the defense.
“She has a great sense for the game,” added the M-CHS skipper. “She recognizes when we need to slow things down.”
M-CHS aims to collect another district title, a season after sharing the honor with Meeker. Trips to Delta, Cedaredge and Alamosa will provide stern tests for the Panthers, while the second half of their schedule features an exciting homestand against Rifle, Palisade and Basalt.
While success can sometimes be measured by the win-loss column, Frost looks for other metrics to measure the program.
“The girls put in the hard work,” said Frost. “I'm not worried about winning or losing, it’s been the positive energy of this team that will help us get better.”
Yet, for all of the expectation, Likes seeks to keep things in perspective, “We’re a goofy team. We like to have fun,” said the senior. “We know when it’s time to get serious, but we also are able to lift each other when we get stressed.”
Just a few swings into the season, it was hard to imagine that the Panthers were playing in their first game.
Facing rival Durango in their season opener on Tuesday, M-CHS clicked right out of the gate, scoring eight runs in the second inning to seize control of their first win of the season, 16-10, at Englehart Field.
After the Demons scored four runs in the top of the first and two more in the second, M-CHS responded by batting around in the bottom half of the frame to build a lead that they wouldn't relinquish.
Lizzie Likes led the way for M-CHS with four hits, including a solo home run in the sixth inning to cap a thunderous 14-hit performance for the Panthers. However, it might have been Likes' adjustment in the circle that saved the day for M-CHS.
With the Demons finding their own traction at the plate through three innings in an 11-9 slug fest, the Panther senior made a huge adjustment mid-contest to change the tenor of the game.
“I got a tip from one of the parents about how I was dragging my foot,” said Likes, “and it helped me get back on track.”
From then on, Likes silenced the Demon bats, striking out seven while putting up zeros on the board in the fourth through the sixth innings while the offense expanded the lead.
Shea Fernandez sparked the bottom of the order with a pair of base hits, while sophomore Abigail Coffey struck with two knocks of her own.
Aubrey Rutherford, a sophomore taking the role at second base for the Panthers, enjoyed an emphatic varsity debut, rattling a pair of extra-base hits to the fence, and serving as one of seven different Panthers to score multiple runs.
M-CHS scored in five of their six innings at the plate, capitalizing on nine free passes, and stealing a combined six bases to keep the visitors on their heels.
For Durango head coach John Bernazzani, the Demons (0-2) found some steady improvement at the plate. Senior Tehya Barnes and freshman Cori Davis cranked out back-to-back RBI base hits in the second inning, and looked like a serious threat to cause problems every time in the middle of the Demon order.
Fellow senior Alaysia Kremer brought the positive energy for the Demons from behind the plate, steadying relief pitcher Grace Pargin to limit the Panther barrage in the last four innings.
“Our girls hung tough and played some good defense,” said the Demon manager, “but we know we missed some opportunities.”
The Demons had dropped their season-opener to Alamosa, 14-4, but showed more offensive life in their second contest.
“After we lost a lot of pitching last year, we know that we're going to be growing in that area this year,” Bernazzani said.
Quick to credit Likes, however, the Durango head coach knows that his team can learn from their early season challenges.
“She (Likes) kept us off-balanced,” Bernazzani said, “but I liked our approach at the plate with two strikes.”
“It felt to be back out there,” Likes said after the season-opening win, “we're confident out there as a whole group.”
Durango and M-CHS will meet again on Sept. 13 on the Demons’ home turf. In the meantime, both Durango and M-CHS head north this weekend for contests – Durango to Montrose for their league opener on Saturday, while M-CHS takes on the Cedaredge Bruins in an early season district test on Saturday.