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Atomic City Update: More progress needed in the future for LAHS softball program

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By Phil Scherer

Being stuck in neutral is never a good place to be. If you’re driving a car, it means you can’t move forward. If you’re stuck in neutral in your career, it means you aren’t getting ahead or advancing. It is perhaps the worst in sports, where being stuck in neutral means you aren’t experiencing high levels of success, and have no real plan on getting to that point. 

It’s a problem across all levels of sports. Many professional leagues, like the NBA and MLB, often have many teams “tanking” if they aren’t great, just to get a high draft pick and build success faster. While fans don’t enjoy seeing their favorite basketball team go 10-72, they deal with it if it means they will be returning to the playoffs a few years later. 

In pro sports, just being average doesn’t cut it anymore. Teams have to be ready to compete for a championship, or appear to be on that path in the near future. Fans don’t want to pay good money to see a team finish 41-41 and get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. 

The same concept is true at the high school level, where being average doesn’t accomplish much for the school, the players or the community. 

I say this because I truly care about the teams in this community, and want the kids to have as much success as possible. I worry that some of the teams have fallen into a neutral state, and would love to see the trend reversed as soon as possible. This is especially relevant as softball season ended this week. 

On paper, it was a highly successful season as the team went 18-8, won the district championship and advanced to the state tournament. However, a deeper look reveals that things aren’t as great as they seem. 

You see, this was the fifth year in a row that the softball team has advanced to the state playoffs. Every single time, the journey ended almost before it began, with a loss in the first round. 

This year, the Hilltoppers lost 14-7 to Aztec. In 2017, they lost 14-3 to Kirtland Central. In 2016, they lost 11-0 to Miyamura. In 2015, they lost 11-0 to Roswell. And in 2014, they lost 10-0 to Valencia. 

In every instance, the team was a double-digit seed entering the tournament. The last two years, the team has been the champions of District 2-5A, going 11-1 in district play both years. 

And yet, the selection committee valued their accomplishments so little that they were awarded one of the final spots in the tournament. 

Something just doesn’t add up here. Granted, some of the blame is out of the control of the Hilltoppers, who are stuck in a district with teams that haven’t been very good at softball in recent years. But the team does control its non-district schedule, where perhaps tougher opponents are needed, not only to boost its strength of schedule in the eyes of the selection committee, but to give the kids more of an idea of what playing at the highest level really looks like. 

It doesn’t help the kids very much to build up their confidence playing against lesser opponents for two months, only to have that confidence shattered year after year in the first round of the state tournament. 

Entering this season, many of the players talked about how their previous experiences at state prepared them mentally for this year, and how they shouldn’t be intimidated or give up just because a team is seeded higher than they are. 

And the team did fight hard, right to the very end. They were up 5-0 in the second inning and watched it slowly slip away. Ultimately, the story remained the same. Right now, it is a team stuck in neutral.

And for those kids, I want something more. They work hard, and they are talented. They just lack that killer instinct that separates a state-championship-quality team from one that is juat happy to make the playoffs.