BY SCOTT PASKE
KINGMAN – Honesty is an integral part of friendship, and Kingman senior Alex Schreiner was letting it flow in the Eagles' dugout during the Class 3A regional championship game against Cheney.
Schreiner's pal and teammate, shortstop Aly Hageman, committed a two-out throwing error in the previous half inning that led to three Cheney runs and a 3-1 deficit.
Schreiner, Kingman's ace pitcher, wasn't going to let Hageman's dejected expression and distant stare slide.
"My thing with her is always, 'You're the best one on this team. You're out there for a reason and you've played softball for a long time,'" said Schreiner, a Newman University signee and former all-state selection like Hageman. "I just had to get her out of her head. She really played well after that.”
The stakes were high on May 17 for Kingman, which hosted the reigning 3A champion Cardinals in the winner-take-all game to advance to the state tournament. The Eagles, part of a cooperative softball program with Norwich, had already stunned Cheney 5-1 and 8-5 in a May 9 doubleheader to claim the Central Plains League championship.
Cheney arrived at an energized Riverside Park in Kingman looking to atone for those losses. But with Hageman's base hit sparking a two-run rally that quickly tied the score in the second and Schreiner's sacrifice fly in the fourth, Kingman earned its third state berth since 2018 with a 4-3 victory.
Kingman-Norwich, the No. 4 seed in the 3A tournament at 21-2, will play fifth-seeded Frontenac (21-2) in Thursday's quarterfinals at Manhattan's Twin Oaks Complex. The Eagles are seeking their first state victory after falling to Holton in the Class 4A-Division 2 quarters in 2018 and to St. Marys in the 3A quarters in 2019.
Kingman coach Ross Bruggeman, who is 92-22 since becoming the Eagles' head coach in 2017, said his group of five seniors – Schreiner, Hageman, left fielder Kayla Belt, catcher Megan Hensley and third baseman Emma Parsons – has put the distinguishing mark on this year's team, which has won 17 consecutive games.
“It’s their leadership qualities," Bruggeman said. "I let them handle the leadership. I keep things basic and simplify it for the younger girls. these older girls have taken the bull by the horns. They do a phenomenal job of working with the younger girls and helping them out."
Schreiner, the team's leader in multiple statistical categories, said a cohesiveness among her classmates has made that a natural step.
"Our group just has a really good connection," said Scheiner, who is 10-2 with a 1.28 ERA in the circle, and is batting .514 with 13 extra-base hits, 32 RBIs and 28 runs scored. "We love spending time with each other. You can tell that when we're on the field. If one of us makes a mistake, we're there to pick each other up."
Kingman averages 10 runs, Bruggeman said quality pitching and defense have been mainstays for the Eagles, whose lone losses came in non-league play to Mulvane. Sophomore center fielder Laney Wood, who bats .431 with 29 RBIs and a team-high 39 runs scored, has helped Belt fortify Kingman's outfield.
The Eagles' infield has gotten offensive production from Hageman, a Butler Community College signee who is batting .467, Hensley (.441, 23 RBIs) and junior second baseman Marley Munz (.477, 3 home runs, 23 RBIs).
"Defensively, we just have so much talent. We make teams earn runs on us."
And on the rare occasion they don't, Kingman's resilience kicks in. After the Eagles fell behind in the regional finale, junior Peyton Graber and Hageman got hits off Cheney ace Korri Lies. Then with two outs, the Eagles pressured Cheney's defense to pull even, scoring one run on a fielding error and another on a passed ball.
Kingman had to squash another Cheney threat in the third, as the Cardinals loaded the bases with one out against Schreiner with three singles. But Schreiner retired a runner at home on a fielder's choice and got the next batter to pop out to keep the score tied.
"Going down 3-1, no one really flinched. Nobody was mad. That's what great teams do. They knew there was plenty of time and they didn't worry about it."
It's all part of a bigger "brick by brick" mantra that Bruggeman brought to the Kingman program. The idea behind it, Schreiner said, is to stack good practices and good games together with the end goal of winning a state title.
A stack of bricks sits along a wall in Kingman's third base dugout. A singular brick – "Brick zero," Schreiner called it – accompanies the team on road trips.
"It's a constant reminder of yeah, life might be great right now or it kind of sucks right now, but we're still striving for that state title," Schreiner said.
Bruggeman believes his seniors' impact will be felt beyond this weekend's state tournament. He has seen evidence in their day-to-day actions – that figurative brick-stacking – throughout their careers.
"We talk a lot with our seniors about leaving the program better than you found it," Bruggeman said. "This senior group really that to heart. They're leaving a legacy that they'll be able to look back on a few years down the road when the younger players are in their shoes, and they'll have a piece of that success, as well."