Danica Vance was the star player on the very first McPherson High softball team in 1987, coached by Nancy Loescher.
Fast forward 27 years. Now Danica Fitzmorris, she has a chance to be the first coach to lead a Bullpup softball team to state.
When you consider the success of MHS athletic programs down through the years, it’s difficult to believe the Bullpups have never qualified for state. They have had some good teams, very good in fact. The past two years, the Bullpups have come painfully close, but haven’t been able to get over the hump.
Next week, the Bullpups may have their best-ever opportunity. They are hosting a Class 4A Division I regional Tuesday at Grant Complex and for one of the rare times they enter as the No. 1 seed.
Fitzmorris has guided the team to a 14-6 record. The Bullpups open with a Buhler team they hammered 11-1 and 14-3 during the regular season. If form holds true, they would play the co-op team of Andale-Garden Plain in the finals, a team they split with way back in the infant stages of the season. MHS pounded the Indians 12-2 in the first game, then experienced some breakdowns in an 8-5 second-game loss.
It was two years ago the Bullpups lost to A-GP in the regional finals in Andale. The Indians went on to win state that year and MHS gave them one of their closest games.
But all signs point to this as being “the year.” This is a Bullpup team that has scored in double figures nine times and also has shown a penchant for slugging its way back into games when it falls behind.
Fitzmorris has had to overcome the loss of offensive instigator Kiley Kerr. She was one of the top center fielders in Class 4A and was having a banner year (.370 average) before suffering a freak, season-ending knee injury in the outfield during a game at Grant Complex. She was the prototypical leadoff hitter with the ability to slap the ball to the opposite field and had few peers defensively as she covered a lot of ground. She also was a disruptive force on the bases.
The Bullpups have bravely solidiered on without their senior leader. They still have an aggregate batting average of .357, led by Kerr’s younger sister, Chelsey (.484), Jasmine Wann (.413), Madison Hoffman (.412) and Hannah Marshall (.362). Playing half their games in spacious Grant Complex doesn’t lend itself to power hitting, but MHS does have 10 homers on the year and actually has more triples (23) than doubles (15).
It’s a team that also makes a lot of contact with only 55 strikeouts in 20 games. Hoffman, amazingly, has struck out just once in 76 at-bats and Wann just four times in 73 appearances.
But what gets a team to state is pitching. After some early season evaluations, Hoffman has emerged as the team’s ace with an 8-3 record, while Marissa Axelson (3-2) and Elle Schrag (3-1) are going to be important in the regional. I’m sure if Fitzmorris had her druthers, she’d like to get by Buhler using the latter two and save Hoffman for the finals. Axelson has fanned 25 in 25 innings and she can be effective as long as she can locate. Schrag is just a freshman and the future ace down the road.
The final key is defense. MHS has committed 53 errors in 20 games, a good-but-not great statistic. That’s still less than three a game, but it can’t afford to give up free runs.
Fitzmorris believes this team is on the brink of making history. Playing at Grant Complex certainly should help as other teams may not be used to covering such vast real estate. It is a confident team going into the regional and has played a schedule that has prepared it well.
If the Bullpups play to their capabilities, the state trip drought should be over.