When Derby senior Tori Miller labeled the early days of the softball season as some of the worst of her sports life, she didn’t laugh or follow it with a “just kidding.”
Derby opened its season at 0-6, losing to Goddard, Maize and Northwest, a rough schedule made worse by a young, inexperienced team committing defensive and baserunning mistakes.
So for every error, every strikeout, every baserunning miscue, coach Christy Weve made the Panthers run.
“One practice we had probably a solid 40 minutes of running,” Miller said. “… It was horrible.”
The rough start, though, toughened the Panthers (12-10), who upset No. 1-seed Northwest in the regional final to advance to their fourth straight Class 6A tournament.
Derby plays top-seeded Olathe East (22-0), the two-time defending state champion, at 11 a.m. Thursday in Overland Park.
The Panthers’ start wasn’t unexpected considering the opponents — Goddard, Maize and Northwest had a combined nine losses — and their youth. Miller is the lone senior, and Derby graduated six from its 2013 team that finished fourth.
“We were having troubles with defense and getting a bat on the ball,” said sophomore center fielder Kenzie Young, who is hitting .558 with 31 RBIs and 33 runs. “We were popping up a lot.… We were really frustrated. Weve told us, ‘This is the hardest schedule we’ve ever had. Stay positive. It will help us in the long run.’ ”
Weve had been moving her players around, trying to find the right spots for the right players. After the slow start, she settled on specific players, with some adjustments.
For example, Young, a natural center fielder, moves to the infield to replace Carly Gum at second when Gum pitches. But Young, who has 32 stolen bases, is needed in the outfield because of her speed and rocket arm.
With a more settled lineup — and being done playing three of the Wichita-area’s top programs — Derby improved.
All that running helped, too. The players were sick of making the trek from third to right field and back for every mistake. A greater focus descended on practices.
Inexperienced players such as first baseman Natalie Maddox and third baseman Kelsey Siegler showed rapid improvement. Ashlynn Godown and Gum became even better pitchers, and Derby found a rhythm with its offensive production.
Maddox, in her first year playing varsity, is hitting .373, while outfielder Courtney Richardson, who hit No. 9 in 2013, is now in the two-hole and hitting .484.
And then there’s Miller, who has signed with Kansas to play volleyball and embraced the responsibilities of being the lone senior.
“If I had to choose anyone to be the leader, I couldn’t have had a better choice,” Weve said of Miller. “She is good to everyone. She is nice to everyone. She pickss everyone up,and she works hard at everything she does.”
Miller and Weve have had personal emotions to work through, too. Miller’s grandmother recently died, and Weve’s mother has been critically ill. Gum also lost a grandparent.
Dealing with such personal pain played a part in why the regional championship meant even more.
“I’ve won some big games,” said Weve, a state championship coach at Carroll. “(Beating Northwest) was huge. I think a lot of the emotion has to do with when my my mom said we were going to win.”
Weve missed several softball practices shortly before regionals, choosing to spend time with her mother, who battled congestive heart failure.
When she returned, her team welcomed her back, wanting to prove to her that they had worked hard while she was gone.
Not that Weve expected anything else.
“Whatever I ask the girls to do, they’ll do it and give 100 percent and not give me any grief,” Weve said. “We’ve been running for errors and strikeouts, and one day they ran a (lot). I didn’t get any dirty looks, no complaining. They do what I ask them to do.”