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In success, Goodland softball keeps mood light

By KLINT SPILLER

kspiller@dailynews.net

GOODLAND -- The Goodland High School softball team is full of comedians.

Not literally, but almost.

The Cowgirls prefer to keep the mood light during practice, on the way to games, at games and pretty much any other time one could think of. Sophomore pitcher Stephani DeLaRosa said her sides hurt sometimes from laughing so much in practice.

According to several players, that's a significant reason why they have had such a great deal of success in recent years. Goodland is 5-1 so far this season and was 17-4 and 20-4 the past two seasons, which set the school record for wins each year.

"It's just a fun game," DeLaRosa said. "We always have fun together. We've always had fun together."

"In games, we always get serious -- well, sometimes," DeLaRosa added with a smile.

Goodland players crack jokes all the time, and they sing songs en route to games. They even cranked out a short rendition of Darkness' "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" during practice Friday.

They give fun nicknames to each other based upon pretty much anything. Very little is out of bounds, with nicknames ranging from pokes at teammates' facial or body features to childhood names for bellybuttons.

To them, staying relaxed and having fun leads to wins.

"It takes the stress away and the pressure," said senior second baseman Paige Phillips.

"Once we are under pressure, we like break," said junior third baseman Gabby Rangel.

"We have to regroup, tell jokes and laugh, and then it gets us going again and we are back in the motion," said Phillips regarding when they lose their composure.

Goodland head coach Tess Smith said she likes that serious-yet-fun approach to the game. She has tried to establish that type of environment since she started coaching there.

Smith even hands out candy to her players during games, rewarding runners who reach third with M&Ms.

Smith started doing that in 2006 when she began coaching. She said she got the idea while attending the College World Series and saw University of Michigan coach Carol Hutchins handing out M&Ms.

If her players round third and score, Smith said they typically chase her down in the dugout later to get their sugar fix.

"They hold me to it," Smith said.

This softball team has accomplished a great deal in a short period of time, and it still has a large window to achieve even more, with most of the roster composed of juniors.

Those juniors helped turn the program around.

When they were eight graders, the high school squad had a losing record. As freshmen, they helped lift Goodland to a 17-4 record. By their sophomore year, they were 20-3 and made the school's second trip to the state tournament.

"There was a lot of weight on these juniors shoulders when they got here because they had been successful in their summer careers," Smith said.

Smith said she thought that weight hurt them in 2010-2011. The Cowgirls had the top seed at the regional, and they came into their first-round game against Larned unprepared and lost.

"It was a blow," Smith said, but it provided a lesson. "It's not going to just be handed to us. We've got to continue to work hard."

The team did better the next year, making state, but they fell in the first round 11-2 to St. George-Rock Creek, the eventual state runner-up.

Smith said she hopes her squad will learn from that experience.

"You could tell our inexperience (at state)," Smith said. "... It's hard to prepare yourselves when you don't see constant, good pitching all the time."

Goodland has been a solid all-around team this season, averaging 13.5 runs scored and five runs allowed per game.

DeLaRosa (3-0) has pitched 20.1 innings and posted a 2.75 earned-run average, striking out 21 versus two walks. Junior Hope Cochran (2-1) is Goodland's No. 2 starter, notching a 1.91 ERA and striking out 12 to three walks.

The Cowgirls are hitting 0.429 as a team with an on-base percentage of 0.551 and slugging percentage of 0.607.

Rangel leads with the squad, hitting 0.636 with 11 RBIs and 11 runs scored.

"It's really fun," Rangel said about what it's like to play with her squad. "I laugh all the time. It doesn't feel like we are playing competitively. We are just coming in and doing what we love."

This year, Goodland is in Class 4A and will compete in a regional with its Great Western Athletic Conference rival Colby as well as Hoisington/Claflin, Hugoton/Moscow, Kingman/Norwich, Larned, Pratt and Ulysses.

Phillips said she isn't phased by the transition from 3A to 4A.

"I think we can still accomplish a lot," Phillips said. "We are a really good team together and everything. We will be good anywhere you put us, because we are a team together."