BELGRADE — The Belgrade softball team lost to Billings West in the Eastern AA divisional championship, but the Panthers looked impressive in their first year at the Class AA level and they’re ready to make some noise at the state tournament.
“Resilient," Panthers assistant coach Eric Tomasetti said when asked to describe his team. "We’re not going down without a fight. You ask every single girl on our program if they are afraid of any team in the state and the answer is going to be no.”
Having success at the Class A level, it was an adjustment going to AA, but one the Panthers were ready for.
“You have to kind of make sure that you’re focused and dialed in every single pitch, every single at-bat," Tomasetti said. "The second you're not, that’s when teams are going to catch you sleeping and that’s when they can really do damage.”
For the players, they're proud of how the team hasn't been fazed by the move up.
“I know a lot of people didn’t expect us to go this far and I’m really proud that we persevered and kept on going," said junior Shaylis Osler, who plays first base and catcher. Osler has been a key cog in the Panther lineup, as she has a .475 batting average on the season with five home runs and 31 RBI.
The Panthers ended up taking the fourth seed into the Eastern AA divisional tournament. From there, they earned the No. 2 seed for the state tournament in Kalispell. They were so close to nabbing a No. 1 seed, losing to Billings West 13-12 in the divisional title game.
“We were a little disappointed, but the fact that we kept on smiling, the fact that we were actually able to beat (Billings Senior), a team we were a little nervous about in the beginning, the fact we kept on going and afterwards, we celebrated that, 'Hey, we’re going to state, that’s all that matters,'” said Osler.
Despite not grabbing a No. 1 seed, every team is starting fresh and anyone can win the state tournament.
“Doesn’t matter who’s 4 in the East or 4 in the West or 1 in the East or 1 in the West, anybody can be beat anybody and that’s what we want to do," Tomasetti said. "We’re going to go there and beat some teams.”
Senior leader Kenna Tomas didn’t want the team to view the defeat to West as a loss.
“I didn’t think that it felt like a loss," she said. "We always talk about losing versus getting beat and I think that game was a game that we got beat. We played really hard and we did everything we could and I think we got beat that game. I didn’t want the team to see that as a loss because that’s a negative thing. I wanted everyone to stay positive going into state.”
Thomas, who is committed to Carroll College to play softball next year, has been a big part of the Panthers' program since her freshman season. On the year, Thomas has a .493 batting average, a .593 on-base percentage and is slugging .927.
“She’s the biggest hype man on our team. No matter who it is, she’s the first person to congratulate you and the first person to make you pick your head up when you make a mistake," Tomasetti said of his senior leader. "I don’t think our team is where it’s at without her. I don’t think our program is what it is without her. She really is the heart and soul of this team.”
As for how they can make a run at the state title, the Panthers must first cut down on mistakes.
“We can’t let teams have extra chances because in AA that’s when they make you pay," said Tomasetti. "I feel like every game we’ve lost this year, it’s because we’ve given teams extra chances.”
They also must always stay positive.
“I think our program is all about working hard and being mentally strong and I think that’s what it’s going to take for all of us (to win state)," said Thomas, who has won two state titles at the Class A level with the program.
The Panthers' quest for the title begins when they take on Helena Capital in the state tournament at 2 p.m. on Thursday.