Recalling Forest Park’s state softball title runMay 29, 2020
BY JONATHAN SAXON
FERDINAND — What if I told you that a team that existed for less than five years could shock their sport’s world with a state title run? It may sound like an exaggerated retelling of a season lost to time, but it did, in fact, occur for one Dubois County team in the not-too-distant past.
The Forest Park softball team entered its fourth season of existence in 2001, but the young program was already experiencing success. They won a sectional title the year before, and were excited to hit the field to defend their title.
“We wanted to go into the postseason tournament as far as we could,” said Kate (Miller) Kress, who was a senior center fielder and also won the Mental Attitude Award that season. “The group of girls we played with were all hard workers and determined.”
But the Rangers had bigger ambitions beyond just defending their sectional title. They had plans for a trip to Carmel for a Class 1A state championship bid.
“We always want to go for the ultimate goal,” said Heather (Kress) Davis, then a senior third baseman. “We wanted to come back and win [sectional], then see if we could go any further.”
“I remember telling my dad, ‘I think we can win state this year,’” added Jayme (Knies) Stillman, who was the Rangers’ junior ace pitcher.
Stillman was a commanding presence on the mound for the Rangers in 2001. She accumulated a 15-2 record in the spring with a 0.92 ERA and 127 strikeouts. She also allowed only 35 walks. Stillman pitched left-handed and had a range of pitches she could call on at any given time. She rated her control and placement as the top tools that made her a nightmare for opposing batters. She studied lineups and tried to figure out where each batter was least effective so she could target those areas with her hurling skills.
“I did have several pitches,” Stillman said. “But the number one factor was placement of all of those pitches and knowing whether to go inside or outside on a batter. Find the weakest area for a particular batter and try to pitch it there.”
Stillman said her teammates backing her up in the field filled her with confidence whenever she hit the mound. She also singles out her father, then-assistant coach Glenn Knies, as the person most responsible for her development as a pitcher.
“I owe all of my success to my dad,” she said. “He was my pitching coach. He and my mom took me to tons of camps. I practiced nonstop. We were practicing pretty much every single day of the year.”
The Rangers weren’t an overpowering team at the plate, but they used consistent contact to get runners on the base paths and put pressure on defenses. They were hitting .327 as a team going into the state semifinals, with six batters hitting over .300 for the season. Davis hit greater than .500 for the season with four homers and 31 RBIs. Stillman had another five home runs and 21 RBIs.
“Pitching and defense were our strongest points,” said Greg Durcholz, who coached the softball team from 1998-2003. “But there were nights we swung the bats well. Our defense just continued to get better throughout the year. We just didn’t make many mistakes.”
The Rangers started the season with a five-game win streak before experiencing their first stumble against the Pike Central Chargers. The Rangers committed seven errors in the field, and the Chargers capitalized for a 10-1 win. Durcholz called the moments after that a turning point for the Rangers’ season, and the team’s reaction gave him insight into just how good they could be.
“We played horrible,” he said. “It looked like we didn’t want to be there, just a lackadaisical effort all the way around. I got to the team huddle after the game, and you could see they were embarrassed. We didn’t have to say much, and the girls took care of it from there.”
The Rangers proceeded to win their next nine games and lost one other game that season, a 6-5 duel with the Heritage Hills Patriots. They bounced back with another five-game win streak leading to the postseason. Current Rangers coach Kelly Schroering, who was a freshman and became the starting catcher halfway through the season, recalled the team adopting a ‘no excuses’ mantra that defined them during their sectional run.
“We had the motto, ‘no excuses,’” she said. “It doesn’t matter what the conditions are, we’re coming out here to do our best. We kept that no excuses [attitude] all the way through.”
That mindset carried the Rangers through a dominant sectional run in which they outscored Orleans, Northeast Dubois and Loogootee 23-1. In the regional round, the Rangers shut out South Ripley and Tecumseh in back-to-back games. The 3-0 win over Tecumseh was especially sweet since the Braves knocked the Rangers out of the regional round the year before.
“Any time you can avenge one of those losses, it’s a good feeling,” Kress said. “When you lose, it fires you up and fuels you to work hard and do everything you can. When you win and see your hard work has paid off, that’s a good feeling.”
After regional came the state semifinals. Forest Park drew the Pioneer Panthers. The Panthers managed to strike first and carried their 1-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning. But Davis caught one for a single to center field which scored Laura Klem and tied the game. The Rangers got the definitive run in the bottom of the ninth inning. With two outs, junior first baseman Cara Hasenour hit a single that stayed just inside the first base line and drove in Kress for the 2-1 walkoff win.
“We owe it to Cara Hasenour for popping it right over the first baseman’s head,” said Stillman. “That was amazing.”
Then came the state finals the next night. The Rangers, whose accomplishments had pushed them to No. 7 in the Class 1A rankings, had to find a way past the top-ranked Indianapolis Lutheran Saints. The Saints had a powerhouse offense that scored 10 or more runs 10 times that season.
“You can hear those things,” Stillman said. “But then you think to yourself we don’t know the teams they played, and we’re a new team coming in to play them. We’ll just give it our best and do everything we’ve been practicing. It’s about pumping yourself up.”
“Saturday it was like, ‘Let’s just go out and play,’” Schroering added. “We didn’t care that they were scoring 10 runs a game. That wasn’t what crossed my mind when we came on the field.”
Durcholz said Pioneer and Lutheran were complete opposites of one another offensively. While the Panthers wanted to use small ball to put pressure on teams, the Saints lived and died by their big swings. After getting past the Panthers, Durcholz felt the Saints’ game was a more favorable matchup for the Rangers.
“Lutheran was powerful at the plate,” he said. “But they just wanted to stand toe-to-toe and slug it out with you. Our team felt more comfortable against Lutheran because they weren’t putting that pressure on you in the field.”
The confidence turned out to be well-placed. Stillman took the mound and silenced the Saints batters with no hits allowed along with five strikeouts and four walks. Stillman became the first pitcher in Class 1A history to throw a no-hitter in a state finals game.
“I had no idea until I was told,” she said. “I did hear afterwards a news reporter went in the dugout and was telling them, ‘You know she has a no-hitter,’ and the coaches were like, ‘Get out, don’t jinx it.’”
The Rangers only needed three runs that day to seal the first-ever state title in Forest Park’s history. The first run came in the fifth inning when junior designated hitter Jayme Luebbehusen hit a two-out single to drive in Manda Wagner. The next one came from Davis via fielder’s choice in the sixth. Luebbehusen scored the final run in the seventh after a sacrifice fly from Davis.
“It was definitely one of the biggest accomplishments I had in my high school career,” Davis said. “All the hard work we did all season paid off. It put it all together.”
“It was one of those unbelievable feelings,” added Kress, who finished with a record three hits in the game. “It feels like a dream. You can’t realize what’s going on.”
Being part of the team that won its school’s first state title is a source of a lot of pride for the women. Add the fact that they did it within five years of the program’s formation and it becomes clear just how unique their place is in Dubois County history.
“Looking back, I think about how important that was,” Schroering said. “We had great fan support and got the blue medal. Now being a coach and seeing how everything has to go just right, the awesomeness of it has become more significant as we’ve gone on. Nobody can take away that we were the first Forest Park state title.”
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