As if taken from a Norman Rockwell painting, a dozen or so Montezuma-Cortez High School softball players soak in the simple joy of a batting practice session. With their joy and carefree demeanor, one might easily overlook their hard work – this team is good.
Like historically good.
The Panthers, under first-year head coach Brittney Whiteman, sit with a record of 9-5-1 and find themselves positioned 14th in the most recent 3A RPI rankings. Take that mark into perspective: The Panthers have the opportunity to finish with double-digit wins and with a winning record for the first time in more than a decade. Four of their five losses have come against teams ranked in the Top 8.
“We’ve been so close against those top teams,” said Whiteman. “We know what we need to do to finish games out.”
Taking that next step has been part of the whole process for an upperclassmen-heavy Panthers squad. Five seniors, all four-year players, have had a part in the emergence of the program from the depths of a two-win season their freshman year to a place among the region’s elite.
“Our team is like a family,” said shortstop Morgan Short. “We’re working hard, but we have fun as a group.” Short, the team leader in runs scored and home runs, serves as the catalyst on the field and in the dugout, providing energy for the Panthers. It’s an energy that the team finds infectious.
“We’re approaching at-bats with more confidence,” added third baseman Mandy McAfee. “More so than any other year, we really have a positive team mentality.” McAfee uses her team-best 10 walks and .450 batting average to help spearhead an offense that reaches base at a .527 clip.
The Panthers have scored at least seven runs in 10 of their outings this year. Aggressive base-running – Short and McAfee have combined for 31 stolen bases this season – has kept opponents on their heels.
Success began in the offseason, when many of the Panthers honed their trade in summer ball. “We can see the improvement,” said Kailey Case. “The fact that we’ve been playing together for such a long time has helped bring this group together.” Case, who plays first base, owns a team-best 27 hits and 18 RBIs.
While the offense continues to put up eye-popping numbers, Panthers pitching has continued to improve. The Panthers staff, headlined by senior Taylor Comisky and junior Presley Frost, have allowed just three runs in their past three contests. “We’ve really focused on mechanics,” said Comisky, who had split time between the mound and outfield before settling into the circle.
Going through the process of learning how to win has been a process over the four years for this group of seniors, perhaps no more poignantly than for first-year varsity outfielder Sarai Cruzan. “We’ve worked so hard to get here,” said Cruzan, “I just want to be appreciative of the opportunity.” Cruzan ranks among the team leaders in on-base percentage, while relishing her role in right field.
“We’ve known each other for so long,” said Comisky. “From summer ball to team dinners, everything has brought us together.”
Part of the Panthers’ success has been attributed to Whiteman’s coaching philosophy. “It seems like she’s been around the program a lot longer than one year,” said Short. “She really knows us well – our strengths and weaknesses.”
As the season begins to wind down, the Panthers are planning for a deep postseason run. “It’s our senior year,” said McAfee. “We’ve put in so much hard work and dedication, we’re all trying to make it memorable.”
M-CHS got a taste of the regional tournament a year ago, falling just short of the state championships. “We had never been in that situation before,” Case said, “but now we know what it’s like.”
Part of that change has accompanied accepting the challenges of the high level of competition. “We know that we’re going to do our best, and whatever happens, happens,” said Cruzan.
For a team that is creating a place in the history books of Montezuma-Cortez High School softball, the group of five seniors recognizes the role that softball has played on their high school experience. “The idea of being a part of a team is really important to me,” Comisky said.
Reflecting on her career, Short added, “We’re making memories with people that I may never see again after high school.”
The Panthers seek to ride their momentum into a flurry of late-season contests, beginning Homecoming Weekend on Saturday, Sept. 29 against Rifle, before meetings with Basalt, Durango and Eagle Valley wind down the regular season. From there, M-CHS would await its playoff fate, as the top 24 teams in the state vie for coveted spots for the 3A State Championships played in Aurora on Oct. 19 and 20.
The sun begins to dip toward Sleeping Ute Mountain, and practice draws to a close, a groove now steadily worn away in the batter’s box from all the cleats dug into the dirt. Case, staring across the diamond at her teammates, composed one more thought about a group that has etched its place among the all-time greats in school history: “We’re out here creating our own set of footprints.”