FORT DODGE — The right culture can triumph many things.
To every coach and every girl on Waterloo Columbus’ softball roster, that statement means everything.
The Sailors truly believe they wouldn’t be making their first trip to the state softball tournament at Harlan and Hazel Rogers Park in Fort Dodge to face Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont Monday if not for their faith in each other.
“When Coach O (head coach Chris Olmstead) came here, he brought this saying, ‘I am second to the team,’” said Grace Surma, the lone senior for Columbus. “That brought a new sense of trust and value to this team.
“It means we are going to trust each other and I’m going to have your back and you are going to have my back and that is how the game is going to be won. We are best when we trust each other, put each other first and ourselves second.”
Creating the right culture is something Olmstead has tried with every program he’s been involved in over a 30-year coaching career.
In his fourth season at the helm of the Sailors, Olmstead was a long-time youth baseball coach in the Cedar Valley, first at the Optimist level, then at Sacred Heart and eventually as an assistant to former Columbus coach Terry Goerdt.
A job change found Olmstead in Carroll in 2010 and after a year there, he was approached by the Carroll Kuemper athletic director and asked if he would consider coaching softball.
“I was like, I don’t know,” Olmstead said sheepishly. “I was a baseball guy. But I agreed to give it a try and I was hooked almost immediately. I couldn’t see myself going back to baseball now.”
With a team that has 20 underclassmen on its 22-girl roster, Olmstead knew culture was going to be important despite the fact the Sailors were loaded with talent.
“We emphasize around here a culture that is focused on our faith and trusting one another and constructive criticism and how to handle that,” Olmstead said. “It’s pushing each other to the upper limits. That is not just the kids doing it to each other, it is coaches doing it to each other.
“We want to make each other better and that is the thing. I have always been a firm believer you can be direct and stern and still do it in a loving way because you are doing it because you care. I think we do a good job of that.”
While trust is important, the Sailors (34-5) have a wealth of talent, too.
It starts in the pitching circle with sophomore Kayla Sproul, who was masterful in Columbus’ 1-0, 11-inning victory over BCLUW in the regional finals. Mixing up her pitch speed and location, Sproul has dialed in a 27-5 mark with a 1.72 ERA.
Offensively, the Sailors are a blend of speed and power from top to bottom.
Sophomore Taylor Hogan is one of the top leadoff hitters in the state, owning a .471 batting average while scoring 55 runs and stealing 38 bases. She can hit for power, too, with 12 doubles, two home runs and has driven in 30 runs.
Sisters Alivia Schultz, an eighth-grader, and sophomore Sydney have driven in 52 and 40 runs, respectively, and Sproul has 44 RBIs. In all, eight Columbus hitters have 20 or more RBIs for a team that has averaged 7.6 runs per game.
The Sailors would rather talk about trust than their video-game numbers.
“It starts with our senior leader, Grace Surma,” Sproul said. “She is our leader and has made us a better team. You have to have trust in each other. We are going to make outs. We are going to make errors, but you have to trust each other that you are going to look past that and get the next one.”
Columbus also believes its diverse coaching staff provides an edge.
Olmstead has his 30 years of experience, and former Sailor standout Brooke Craig brings a lot of new college techniques to the mix. And then there is Dave Dutton, the pitching coach, who is in his sixth decade of coaching, a position he held at Waterloo West when the Wahawks qualified in 2009.
“He brings a young vibe to our team,” Surma laughed.
“He makes me better,” Olmstead said of Dutton. “We bring two different styles to the field and they are not in conflict with each other. But we blend together really well and challenge each other every once in a while ... constructive conversations.
“Brooke has also made us better. We are all of the same mold. We all have high expectations and have a plan on how to get to a goal and we communicate that really well not just with our players, but with each other.”
CLARKSVILLE BACK AT STATE: The Indians (27-2) qualified for their second state tournament with their previous trip coming back in 2004.
Like Waterloo Columbus, youth dominates Clarksville’s roster as the Indians have seven freshmen, three eighth-graders, three sophomores and juniors and two seniors.
Two of those underclassemen — freshman pitcher Kori Wedeking and eighth-grade shortstop Cheyenne Behrends — lead the way for Clarksville. Wedeking is one of the top freshman pitchers in the state, having struck out 195 batters in 112 1/3 innings while compiling a 22-1 mark this year. Wedeking has allowed just 25 runs all year, 12 of them earned.
Behrends is batting a robust .484 and has slugged 11 doubles along with three home runs while leading the team in hits (44), runs (44) and RBIs (34).
Clarksville, the three seed, opens with Belle Plaine (23-6), which is making its second consecutive trip to the tournament and returns eight starters from a team that finished sixth last summer.
COMETS ON A MISSION: After making their first appearance at state since 2009 last year, Charles City earned a return trip in exciting fashion, knocking off top-ranked Benton Community to get back into the Class 4A field.
It was the second straight year Charles City has pulled off a big upset in the regional finals and that makes the Comets a dangerous foe. The six-seed will open with Fairfield (33-9) on Tuesday.
Senior Sara Martin provides the wallop with her .471 average, 12 home runs and 52 RBIs, while Samantha Heyer has dazzled opponents to a 22-5 record inside the circle.