After just three years in the league, the Red Devils are playing like veterans
The Noxon Red Devils didn't even have a softball team three years ago. Now you can drive by the high school tennis courts on a winter's day and spot girls throwing balls against the backboards, practicing their pitching and fielding.
"A little success can go a long way," says Noxon coach Chad Stocking, who has guided the young Red Devils literally from left field to a prominent place among western Montana's Class B-C teams.
Despite having just three seniors on its 17-player roster, Noxon is 11-2 and has defeated Frenchtown and Florence, the teams that played for the state B-C championship last year, as well as perennial Western A power Libby.
"I look at this team, and I finally see a group that's hungry," Stocking said. "They've had some success, but they want more."
How does he know?
"At practice, we used to have three girls having a conversation over by third base, and three more talking over in right field," Stocking said. "Things could be pretty casual. Now, they come to work.
"That's not to say we don't have fun out there. But the kids are excited about getting better every day. They'll even stay after practice to work on something. This has been a great group to work with."
The Sanders County club announced its arrival on March 27 when senior third baseman Ciarra Hay, the team leader and cleanup hitter, slugged a grand slam homer to defeat defending state champ Frenchtown 6-2. It was Noxon's first ever win over Frenchtown, a team that, as Stocking admits, "can beat you on reputation alone."
"After that game, (Frenchtown coach) Mark McMurray came up to me and said, 'If your girls didn't have confidence before, they sure should now,' '' Stocking said. "And really, that's the difference. They kind of relaxed after that. They know they can beat the powerhouse teams."
Noxon has done it by swinging aggressively at the plate. The Red Devils are batting .352, while averaging 11 runs per game. The only team to outhit Noxon this season is Cut Bank, which snapped the Red Devils' nine-game winning streak with an 11-4 decision last weekend at the Frenchtown Invitational tournament.
Freshman catcher Bonnie Smith, at a robust .447, leads five Red Devils batting .350 or better. Junior second baseman Randi Stocking, the coach's daughter, tops the club in RBIs while batting .333. The Red Devils' strong junior class also includes pitchers Stacey Smith and Morgan Werst, outfielders Crystal Wiltse and Brit Nolen, and infielders Maggie Haflich and Marah Hay, Ciarra's younger sister.
The juniors form the nucleus of the team, and most of them have played in ASA summer competition since they were 12 years old. Stocking and other interested parents urged the school board to adopt softball as a high school sport while the group was still in junior high. Noxon launched its team, with Stocking as the coach, when they were freshmen.
Stocking had high expectations this spring after Noxon went 11-7 two years ago and 8-11 last year - without a senior on the roster. But he knows the second half of the season will be more challenging. Werst is still recovering from a broken nose, suffered in a batting practice accident. Marah Hay, the Devil's speedy leadoff hitter, was lost for the season on April 12 when she broke her leg on an attempted steal of second base during a doubleheader sweep of Florence.
"This season is like a ladder," Stocking said. "Every game is another rung. Like I've told them, once in awhile you're going to take a step backward. Then you have to take two steps forward."
Despite their success, the Red Devils know the climb has just begun.
Rial Cummings can be reached at 523-5255 or email@example.com