Longtime Braves see run come to an end
For nearly a decade, the Tonganoxie Braves have spent their summers together, traveling throughout the state and, sometimes, out-of-state for softball tournaments.
They won a North American Fastpitch Association "B" National Championship in 2004 as a 14-and-under team and had an opportunity to do it again this month as an 18-and-under squad before falling painfully close as runners-up to the Columbus (Neb.) Bullets.
The Braves' 6-3 loss to Columbus on July 19 marked the very last time a core group of players that had been there since the beginning - on a 10-and-under team - played together. For those players, and their coaches, emotions ran high.
Craig Lohman, who has coached the Braves with the help of Pat Albert since the softball team's inception (Curtis Smart joined as an assistant two years ago), said the team's final game, a loss, was difficult to swallow.
"A little bit bittersweet," he called it. "They thought they could win it, and I felt they could."
Having won a "B" title before, Lohman and the players thought they were capable of going out on top.
"They've done good," he said, before commenting on the finality of the situation. "It was hard to say goodbye to all these girls, though."
Catcher Melissa Pratt, like Ashlee Lohman, Amanda Albert and Amie Riddle, has played for the Braves every year. She said it was difficult to believe their playing days together were over.
"It's hard," she said. "After playing with some of the same girls for over nine years they kind of become like family. It's going to be kind of weird playing with other girls because you get so used to the ones that you're playing with. It just kind of hit me during the championship game. It was sad."
Albert agreed, saying it was strange to realize their time as Braves was done.
"It's pretty crazy. You're so used to playing every weekend for the last nine years," she said.
The weight of the situation, Pratt said, came down on everyone involved.
"It was really emotional," she said. "We had both of our coaches crying."
It may sound cliche, Riddle said, but the Braves felt like a family when they were together. She said the coaches were like fathers to her and her "two best friends in the entire world" - Albert and Lohman - were the players she has been taking the field with for so long.
Albert said spending so much time together through the years made the Braves a close-knit group.
"We're successful, but we have fun at the same time, which is awesome," she said.
It was that same closeness that made the 2008 finals so difficult.
"We went in there that last day knowing that it was our last chance," Riddle said. "With the last three outs, every out came with a few more tears."
Still, Albert was glad they could finish their time with the Braves on a fairly high note.
"Getting second, that's an awesome way to end your career," she said.
The relationships forged by Braves players won't end any time soon. Pratt will join Riddle, a pitcher, on the softball team at Highland Community College next year. Albert and Lohman are both headed to Kansas State University in the fall.
And while the Braves may be history for their departing players, coach Lohman said five girls from this year's team will be back next year to keep the tradition going.