For the first time in more than 20 years the Barton Community College softball season did not end with the conclusion of the Region VI Championships.
Instead the Cougars brought home the Region VI title then almost immediately took to the road again. This time to Scottsbluff, Neb. and the District E Championship series with Western Nebraska. The teams will play a best 2-of-3 series starting Wednesday with the winner headed to St. George, Utah and the NJCAA National Championships.
Wednesday’s doubleheader will have a first pitch of 4 p.m. A third game if needed will be played Thursday.
Barton will head north playing some of its best softball of the season. The Cougars are 16-5 in their last 21 games.
When they arrive in Scottsbluff they will find a team waiting for them that is even hotter. The Cougars of Western Nebraska have won 16 straight games and have not lost in more than a month. The last loss for Western Nebraska came April 4 – a 4-1 loss to McCook.
That setback actually ended an 11-game winning streak meaning the Cougars have won 27 of their last 28 games. Since the middle of March, Western Nebraska is 34-2.
Overall the Region IX champions are 54-12. Barton is 36-18.
“Western Nebraska is a very good team,” Barton assistant coach Anna Voss said. “We have to have the bottom of our lineup hitting for this series. As long as we stay focused on defense and at the plate, the best team will win.”
While Barton was winning its first region title in 22 years the Cougars of Western Nebraska won their fifth region title in the last eight years. It is the school’s first since 2012. Western Nebraska is seeking its fifth NJCAA tournament appearance in the last eight years as well.
Western Nebraska has one of the most prolific offenses in the NJCAA. The Cougars are second nationally in runs scored (559), first in hits (712), first in RBI (490), fifth in batting average (.386), and eighth in home runs (62).
They also has tons of speed. WN leads the nation in stolen bases with 254 – 60 more than anyone else. In addition the Cougars lead the nation in triples with 39 – 15 more than any other team in the country.
“They steal a lot of bases so Caitlin (Garcia, Barton’s catcher) and the middle infielders can’t be fooled,” Voss said.
Barton has also proven to be an offensive force in its own right, ranking fifth in home runs (71), 15th in RBI (368), and 16th in runs scored (404).
The series will feature the nations’ top two run producers. Western Nebraska sophomore Jessica Ball leads the NJCAA with 98 RBI in 63 games this year while Barton sophomore Erica Harper is second with 92 in 53 games.
Western Nebraska has three of the top 10 base stealers in the nation led by sophomore Kelsey Bernhardt’s 62 steals – second in the NJCAA. She has been caught only five times.
Ball not only provides pop but is speedy, going 53-of-53 in stolen base attempts – the most in the nation without being caught and fifth best overall.
Ball, a third team All American last year, is among the nation’s best in batting average hitting .495 – ninth best. Her 82 runs scored are third in the country while Bernhardt has scored 89, second most in the nation. Ball is the only player in the nation to have double figures in doubles (20), triples (19) and home runs (13).
With both teams able to score in bunches it could come down the pitching staffs. Western Nebraska is led by freshman Andy Hancock in the circle. She is 20-2 this season with a 1.77 ERA with 91 strikeouts and 40 walks in 126 innings.
Jordan Smith, sophomore, also had a good year, going 15-5 with a 1.76 ERA. She has struck out 99 and issued 43 base on balls in 108 innings. Freshman Whitney Fields has seen a lot of time in the circle, going 9-3 with a 3.10 ERA over 104 innings. She has 77 strike outs and 53 walks.
Barton had been led by a pair of freshmen pitchers this year. Holly Posegate is 18-7 with a 3.14 ERA. The Colorado-native has 109 strike outs and 60 walks in 154 innings. Garden Plain freshman Taylor Bugner is 14-9 with a 3.40 ERA. She has 128 strikeouts and 72 walks in 159 innings.