HASTINGS, Neb. — Taking trips east to play in tournaments has helped a former western Nebraska softball power rise again to become a consistent presence at the Class C state tournament.
The person who wanted to toughen the schedule is the Cozad coach, who knows a thing or two about winning championships.
Ashley Ford, the former pitcher known as Ashley Hagemann, is in her fourth season leading a Haymaker softball program that has a rich history.
Cozad was the first school to win a Class C state softball title when the sport expanded to three classes in 2001. The Haymakers also were the first team to win back-to-back Class C crowns by repeating in 2002.
Runner-up trophies also were earned in 1999, when Cozad was Class B runner-up to Ralston, and in 2016. The Haymakers were in nine of the first 10 Class C tournaments before a four-year drought ended in 2015.
Ford has brought her championship mindset to Cozad. Under her direction the Haymakers have been to three of the past four Class C tournaments, including the 2021 event that begins 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Smith Softball Complex.
Cozad opens the tournament as the No. 8 seed and will face No. 1-ranked Wahoo Neumann. If the Haymakers win, they would play a 7 p.m. game Wednesday against either Yutan/Mead or Malcolm. A loss Wednesday would move Cozad to elimination bracket games scheduled for Thursday.
“This team is unique from any other team I’ve coached here the last four years,” Ford said. “We only have 15 girls on the roster. The team chemistry and willingness to do whatever it takes for the team, the selflessness they’ve shown, has carried us and made this team really, really special.”
One of the things Ford wanted to do when she took over the Cozad program was diversify the schedule and not just continue to play the same schools over and over, season after season. One of those changes was traveling east the second weekend of the season to play in the Blair Invitational.
It was there that Cozad notched a pair of victories over Class A schools — Omaha Westside and Fremont, which at the time was undefeated. The Haymakers lost to the host Bears, but that didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.
“I’ve been transitioning the schedule to play the teams out east,” Ford said. “We didn’t want the girls to be afraid of playing teams in different classes, and they weren’t. We also wanted to get out of the rut of playing the same teams over and over.
“Some of the teams we played probably didn’t know where Cozad is. I was a little concerned that it might be a little too much for us at the beginning of the day. I was proud of their demeanor. They understood this would help our mentality for the postseason.”
Players and parents alike have embraced that philosophy, not just because Ford is the coach. They also understand she knows the path to a successful career as she became one of the most decorated and successful players in state history at the high school and collegiate levels.
As a student-athlete at Elkhorn, Ford was a member of the four state championship teams the Antlers had from 2004-07. In her junior and senior years, Ford became just the third player to twice be named honorary captain of The World-Herald’s All-Nebraska team.
She was a three-time first-team All-Nebraska selection before she chose Nebraska over Texas to continue her softball career in college.
By the time Ford graduated from Nebraska in 2012, she was the school’s all-time strikeout leader with 988, finishing among the nation’s top 10 strikeout leaders as a junior and a senior.
Her career record was 75-50 with a 2.55 ERA in 821 innings, finishing with 20 shutouts and 87 complete games. While in school she gave pitching lessons to a set of 8-year-old twins who are on the cusp of their own historic accomplishment in Hastings this week.
Hannah and Lauren Camenzind of Omaha Skutt are vying to help the SkyHawks become the first undefeated Class B team in state history. The team that came the closest was Ford’s 2007 Antler team that finished 30-1.
Ford has overseen the development of Cozad ace Reagan Armagost since the senior was an eighth grader. Armagost has been the Haymakers’ starter since her freshman season. She’s also one of Cozad’s top hitters — along with Katie Wilson and Shaundra Wiederholt — with a .373 batting average.
What got the Haymakers back to state this season was not only the efforts of those three players, but everyone on the roster. After winning their subdistrict, the Haymakers earned the opportunity to host the C-8 district tournament.
After being routed by Auburn 14-3 in the first game of the best-of-three tournament, Ford got everyone together and noticed there were a few frowns that needed to be turned around.
“We had this downcast, upset mood,” Ford said. “I asked them why they were upset, and they said it was because they just got run-ruled in front of our home fans. I agreed that was upsetting, but I also reminded them that now you have the chance to beat them twice.
“They flipped that switch and decided we were going to fight until the end, no matter what happens.”
What happened was a few adjustments from the pitching circle to keep the Bulldogs off balance and keep balls from flying out of Bellamy Park.
Cozad rallied to win Game 2 9-8 to force a third game. That’s when the Haymakers pounced, putting up most of their 15 runs early and holding off Auburn rallies to earn the final state berth available with a 15-12 victory.
“Everybody understood the common goal and worked toward it the last two games,” Ford said. “It wasn’t that the five seniors had to drive everything; everybody was involved. The defense really showed up in the last few innings.”
Ford believes the Haymakers are battle-tested and ready for the challenges that lie ahead this week at state.
“We will just rely on our togetherness and have some fun,” Ford said. “They’ve always been together, on the right page together. I think that will keep us going in the right direction.”