With only three returning letterwinners, the Elkhorn Antlers knew there would be some growing pains at the beginning of the softball season.
The Antlers showed just how far they’ve come in eight weeks Friday by sweeping Waverly in the B-8 district tournament to earn a fourth consecutive trip to the state tournament.
By dispatching its Eastern Midlands Conference rivals 9-1 and 10-2, Elkhorn is again headed to Hastings for the Class B tournament that begins Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. in Hastings.
Elkhorn was the 2018 Class B champion and finished as runner-up to Papillion-La Vista in the 2019 Class A tournament before going 1-2 in the 2020 bracket.
Who the Antlers will play won’t be known until later Saturday because two of the eight best-of-three district tournaments have yet to be played. Both begin at 10 a.m. – B-4 with Gering at Wahoo and Omaha Gross traveling to the panhandle to play Scottsbluff in the B-7 tournament.
Elkhorn was one of six district champions who earned berths to the Class B tournament Friday. The rest of the teams will be decided Saturday. Other district winners who went 2-0 Friday were No. 1 Omaha Skutt, No. 2 Hastings, No. 3 Bennington, and No. 5 Grand Island Northwest.
The lone upset came in Beatrice when No. 7 Norris rallied for two victories after dropping a 7-6 decision earlier Friday to the Lady Orange to earn the B-6 championship. The 11th-seeded Titans forced the if-necessary game by edging Beatrice 10-9 before posting a 12-7 in over the Lady Orange in Beatrice.
Rewind the season back to Aug. 24 when the Antlers were boat-raced 13-5 by Waverly in their regular-season matchup. That loss made Elkhorn 1-4 with a four-game losing streak heading into Week 2.
Antlers coach Al Schutte said two pitchers have emerged as leaders, and the defense behind them has continued to steadily improve throughout the 17-14 campaign.
“Our team was young at the beginning of the season, but they’ve matured quite a bit,” Schutte said. “Our pitchers are getting into the circle now with a lot of confidence, and the defense is limiting the amount of errors.”
Schutte said there were at least five miscues in that August loss to Waverly. He could only recall one total error committed in Friday’s two victories.
“Both of those games, and the two (subdistrict) games we played Monday, those were pretty clean games by our team,” Schutte said.
Claire Nuismer was the winning pitcher in both wins over Waverly. She threw a one-hitter in the first game, and Schutte said Nuismer issued only one walk in the second game.
“Kendra Mitchell is our other pitcher and she stepped into our (designated player) slot today,” Schutte said. “She didn’t see the circle today, but she was ready to pitch. She had a home run for us in the second game.”
That kind of depth wasn’t there at the beginning of the season. What Schutte talked to the team about in those opening days of the campaign about continuous improvement is proving prophetic.
“We talked at the beginning about being a young team and that it’s not about how we play now, it’s how we play at the end of the season,” Schutte said. “The goal was to make our trip to Hastings. We kept telling them we need to keep our heads up, getting stronger and better with our bats.
“When you make it to Hastings, it’s a new ballgame. That’s a crazy tournament; anything can happen once you get there. We’re excited for the challenge, to make the trip and see what we can do.”
Five of the eight Class C state tournament berths were secured Friday, with four of the top five ranked teams (Wahoo Neumann, Hastings St. Cecilia, West Point GACC and Kearney Catholic), along with No. 7 Malcolm, all advancing to Wednesday’s 2 p.m. opening round.
The remaining three districts are scheduled to be played Saturday. David City Aquinas plays at Yutan/Mead in C-4, Freeman hosts Gothenburg in C-7 and Auburn travels to Cozad to play the Haymakers at Bellamy Park in C-8.
Official pairings are expected to be released the NSAA Saturday evening.