The Great Bend High School softball coaches stood outside the team bus with their hands on their heads, almost motionless and completely wordless.
Inside the bus, players filed into their seats, shoving bags into overhead compartments. They slumped as they sat and put headphones to ears, seeking an escape for the next two hours on the bus ride home.
They had just witnessed what resembled a sports miracle — one not in their favor — after pitching something similar through 5 1/2 innings against the No. 2 team in Class 5A West.
Great Bend, the No. 6 seed, entered the postseason with six losses after playing such Western Kansas teams as Garden City, Dodge City and Hays. Remarkably, the Panthers went on the road to Wichita and played the City League runner-up, Northwest, to a 10-2 lead late in the game.
Northwest needed eight runs and had just six outs to work with. The Grizzlies got nine and won 11-10 to reach their first Kansas Class 5A state tournament in school history.
“They just willed it, and they just didn’t stop,” Northwest coach Cody Stucky said. “Girls were picking each other up, and underclassmen were stepping up just as much as the upperclassmen.”
The game-winning run came in the bottom of the seventh with sophomore Hannah Joynt at the plate.
After clawing her way in and up the lineup, Joynt came through with a “duck-snort” slapper just over the first baseman and in front of the right fielder.
“It’s hard to describe, but it’s a great feeling,” Joynt said. “Being on this team, they’ve shown me a lot. Even though we may be different, we all have the love for softball that gives us that power behind everything we do. It’s just our heart and soul.”
After the game, players on both sides shed tears and hugged their parents, trying to wrap their emotions around what they had just witnessed.
Stucky said he had only seen one other game like it, while he was a coach in McPherson. He said the message heading into the bottom of the sixth, knowing his group needed eight to stay alive wasn’t, “Go score eight.” He knew that if Northwest was going to survive, it needed to compartmentalize the runs into chunks and dig into the deficit slowly.
He just hoped they could do it in time.
“The softball gods evened it up for us,” Stucky said. “I’m kind of like, ‘Wow, did we really just score nine?’ I’ll tell ya, 17-5 sounds a lot better than 16-6.”
Northwest reached its first state tournament since 2016. The Grizzlies haven’t won a state game since the year before that, but with the relentlessness the Grizzlies showed Tuesday, Joynt said anything is possible.
“Softball is unpredictable,” she said. “You can be down almost 20 and come back, beating them by 30. You can’t just lay down and give in to the other team, because they may fight just as hard as you. It’s whoever’s heart is in the right place.
“And I feel like our hearts were in the right place tonight.”