HASTINGS — It started before the gloves flew into the air in celebration, and before the final out.
It started before the home runs, including a grand slam from Abbie Squier that changed the complexion of the first game, and maybe the day.
Lincoln Southwest coach Mark Watt wanted his softball players to believe they could beat unbeaten and top-ranked Papillion-La Vista.
His message before Saturday’s Class A state tournament championship games: Simply, believe.
“Papillion has a strong program, a great program, but you have to believe that you can beat them,” Watt said. “When coaches ask for scouting reports on them, the first thing I say is you have to get past putting them up on a pedestal. You have to believe you can do it. We’re not intimidated.
“That is a great team that we have a great deal of respect for.”
The Silver Hawks (39-5) are state champions because they believed.
Behind game-changing home runs, big defensive plays and the combination of McKenzie Steiner and Brin Swanson in the circle, No. 2 Lincoln Southwest stunned the top-ranked Monarchs, not once but twice Saturday at Smith Softball Complex. Southwest won the first game 7-5 to force a decisive game and the second 9-5 to capture the school’s third state softball championship.
“I think we were just so confident in ourselves and that first game just gave us momentum,” Southwest senior Emma Kauf said. “Our bats just came through and everybody did what they were supposed to do, and I’m so proud of them.”
To get to the ultimate prize, Southwest had a daunting task in front of it. The Silver Hawks lost Wednesday’s opening-round game to Millard West on a walk-off. Immediately, the Silver Hawks had to work their way through the losers’ bracket, which they did, winning two games Thursday and two Friday.
But awaiting them was a Papillion-La Vista team that was looking to become the first unbeaten state champion in Class A history. The Monarchs, with the state’s best pitcher, were riding a state-record 49-game winning streak, with 34 of those wins coming this season. Southwest needed to beat Papio twice Saturday.
Southwest trailed 4-1 in the first game when Papillion-La Vista intentionally walked Kauf to load the bases in the fifth. The next batter, Squier, launched a grand slam to left-center on an eight-pitch at-bat to give the Silver Hawks a 5-4 lead.
“They walked Emma and I was just trying to do what I could to get some runs in because I knew I needed to for her and the team,” Squier said.
Said Kauf, “After that play we definitely realized that we could win a state championship. Everyone was so dedicated and wanted it just as much as they did, but we wanted it more.”
Kauf launched her 22nd homer of the season — a Class A state record — in the sixth to give Southwest some breathing room, forcing a second game.
Papillion-La Vista (34-2) bounced back to take a 2-0 lead in the second game, but the Silver Hawks answered in the bottom of the first on home runs from Steiner and Skylar Pieper.
Papio, which committed seven errors on the day, retook the lead at 5-3 before Squier connected for her second-biggest hit of the day — a three-run homer in the fifth.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything,” Squier said. “Two strikes. I was just trying to get contact and I got it square.”
The Silver Hawks scored three more runs in the sixth and Steiner found three outs in the heart of Papio’s order to seal the tournament rally.
“Wind’s blowing out (and) this is a hitter’s day and we hit the ball hard,” Watt said. “That’s something we work on every time.
“Hitting is mostly about confidence, and we knew we could get it done.”
Southwest hit six homers in the two games, and they set an all-class record for homers in season, pushing their total to more than 70.
“They were hitting the ball hard,” Papio coach Todd Petersen said. “That was the hardest I've seen (pitcher Jordyn Bahl) get hit all year. They made good adjustments, and we had our chances, too, both games, to open up the lead or come back and get it.”
Pitching also keyed Southwest’s success this week. Watt went back and forth between two change-of-pace throwers in Steiner and Swanson.
Swanson entered the first game as a reliever and held the Monarchs to one hit over four scoreless innings. Steiner entered as a reliever in the second game and pitched three scoreless frames.
For Southwest, this state championship comes a year after Papio defeated the Silver Hawks 16-4 in four innings in the state title game.
That fueled their 2018 motto — “unfinished business” — and it came in a season in which Southwest had to replace several starters.
“Having graduating eight kids that went to college, I told these kids they were that talented, but we had to develop,” Watt said. “This is by far the most improved team I’ve ever seen.”