Last year, the Columbus Pinnacle Bank Bullets 18 and Under softball team had a roster full of younger players and struggled to win against teams with more experience.
Now, just a year removed, the Bullets have made huge strides and even took fifth place in the Class B American Softball Association Nebraska State Tournament held last weekend in Hastings.
"We had a pretty rough year last year, so I know we worked really hard to be better this year, and I do feel like we're a lot better this year," said coach Amber Topil.
Columbus still has a young team, as all but two players on the team would qualify for 16 and under.
"I think for the years to come (our youth is) definitely an advantage, but I know that they struggle with it in some of these tougher 18 and under tournaments because they haven't had as much experience," Topil said.
This year the Bullets have gone 16-14-3.
Topil said that the improvement from last year has come from the players growing in their softball IQ, becoming more familiar with the strategies involved.
"A lot of it is just teaching the girls some game smarts, and a lot of them have a good attitude what you're looking for and effort," she said. "A lot of it was just teaching the game smarts and then just going from there. The dedication has really stepped up a lot as far as attendance and commitment to off season practices."
Last weekend during the ASA state tournament, the Bullets finished in fifth place and had two big wins against Millard Fury and the Hastings Bombers.
"Our goal going in was probably top four, so we did come up shy of that and that was kind of sad but to even be fifth is pretty huge," Topil said. "Last year we basically went 0-3 at the tournament. That was a huge improvement., basically finishing bottom five last year and then finishing top five this year."
Columbus also had a home triangular on June 11th which it won defeating Norfolk Kellys and David City.
In the first game, against the Kelly's, Aspyn Harrison earned the win in the circle during a 5-4 battle. The Bullets won in their final at bat when Kate Smith found herself on third base and was hit home by her sister Erin Smith.
In game two, Kassidy Soulliere was the pitcher in a rematch against David City.
David City won Class C ASA State in 2018 and was fourth at this year's class B tournament.
The game went into extra innings where David City took a three-run lead.
In the bottom half, Natilie Martensen started on second base due to the international tiebreaker rule.
Hits by Emma Williams and Isabelle Hastings brought her across the plate. Later, Kira Pavlik and Addie Heule had base hits bringing up Kate Smith. Smith hit a long, inside the park home run for a walk-off 8-7 victory.
The Bullets have three regular-season doubleheaders and the United States Specialty Sports Association Class B Nebraska State Tournament in York left on the schedule, which takes place the last weekend of June.
The Bullets are aiming to finish in the top four of the USSSA state tournament.
Topil said in order to achieve that goal, the Bullets will have to play solid for all three days, which has been the Achilles heel up to this point.
"Our biggest thing is showing up on Sundays," she said. "So far this season, we've done awesome on Friday and Saturday, and on Sundays, which obviously matter the most, we tend to kind of let teams that we should beat, beat us by only beating ourselves. So the biggest thing is just not beating ourselves and competing on Sundays."
One of the biggest strengths of the Bullets this year is speed and base running.
"One big strength for us is our speed," Topil said. "For the most part, we have very quick runners, and when we get them on it makes it a lot easier to move them with just simple base hits or strategy. Our outfield has really stepped up. That's a huge difference from last year. Just our defense and our speed."
Peter Huguenin is a sports reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org