When the Center Grove softball team bowed out of the sectional last season, it marked the end of a hallowed tradition.
For the first time since 1992, a senior class passed through the program without reaching the IHSAA state final.
The ignominious occasion did not go unnoticed by Trojans coach Russ Milligan, on whose watch the tradition began 23 years ago.
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“Sarah Thompson, our lone senior last year, is the only kid in my program that had played on the varsity that never stepped foot in the state finals,” Milligan said. “It was kind of sad.
“It was something to graduate that kid and only win one sectional.”
Only at Center Grove, which has more state finals appearances than any softball team in IHSAA history, is a postseason shortcoming like not reaching the state finals a somber affair. The Trojans have won a state-record five championships (no one else has more than three); has been to the championship final a state-record nine times; and has a state-record 13 regional titles.
Moreover, the Trojans have won 19 sectionals, which is one shy of tying the state record.
So when coaches and players talk about winning championships, it’s something more than talk. It’s an expectation. When they fall short, they take it personally.
Having not won a sectional title since 2010, let alone reach the state finals, that’s how the Trojans are approaching the 2015 season: personally.
“Everything we do is specified for a reason, and that reason is to habitually win state,” senior first baseman Mallory Baker said. “We have let the team down by losing for four years at sectionals, and that should never happen for how hard we work and for all the tradition and everything we put into it.
“We should carry on that legacy, and we have not been doing that lately.”
But with the return of all but one starter from last year’s 20-8 team, the Trojans — ranked No. 8 in the preseason Class 4A poll — expect to reignite their state finals legacy.
“This year’s seniors are a great mix of vocal leaders and physical leaders. It’s something I think we’ve missed in the past four or five years,” said Milligan, who has led the Trojans to four of their five state titles.
“We’ve got a team that seems genuinely happy when someone else on the team does something well, and are genuinely excited for them,” Milligan said. “That’s just one of those intangibles that separates teams. A kid has extra confidence up there at the plate because they know that everyone really does want them to do well, and do well in the field and pitch well.
“I truly think our seniors have done a great job of showing that we’re here everybody, including the newcomers.”
Chemistry, or lack thereof, has been at times been an obstacle for the Trojans, who won their most recent state championship in 2009. Since then, they’ve had winning records, been mainstays in the state poll but have fallen well short of what is annually their prime objective, which is to win state. Period.
Off to a 3-0 start, the Trojans — who started 1-2 last season — have convinced their coach that they are indeed united in the cause.
“It shows how far we’ve come from last year, and I think a lot of it is great leadership and the kids having a full year of actually playing together under their belt,” Milligan said. “I think that’s the big difference.
“We’ve got a lot of talent, but we’ve had a lot of talent. This year, after graduating just one (senior), obviously everything seems to be clicking sooner in the season.”
Besides Baker, Center Grove’s returning starters are senior pitcher Abbey Pratt; senior second baseman Mandy Dallas; senior right fielder Courtney Moriarity; sophomore left fielder Maddie Keeley; junior shortstop Delainey Turner; senior third baseman Victoria Boyer; junior catcher Maddie London; and junior pitcher Julie Hammill.
But as the Trojans have learned the past five seasons, talent and experience will take them only so far. Desire and chemistry are equally essential. Maybe more so.
Baker promises the Trojans have plenty of all it’s going to take to break the historic state finals drought.
“We have great team chemistry, and some of my best friends are on the team,” she said. “We’ve grown up together, and it’s awesome to see us all finally coming together as one and ending our senior all together.
“And I think this is the year that we start finally carrying out the legacy of winning state.”
Center Grove’s IHSAA State Finals history
1986;Michigan City Rogers;W 9-2
1992;Lake Central;L 4-2
1996;Turkey run;L 11-7
2002;Lake Central;L 8-1
2003;Lake Central;W 2-0
2004;Lake Central;L 4-1
2009;West Lafayette Harrison;W 2-0