When the Portage softball team takes the field on Saturday, it will have the chance to become just the second team in school history to hoist the softball state championship trophy. The first came 13 years ago, when the Indians knocked off Decatur Central 2-0 in the state championship.
Similar to this year’s team, the 2000 squad played the role of underdog throughout the season.
“For us it was just all of the doubters that we had from the beginning,” senior captain Michele Pickering said. “I remember all of the articles coming out at the very beginning that we had lost [1999 Miss Softball of Indiana Wendy Cannon] and we weren’t going to be that good. To turn that around and take all the negative and win the state championship is what stands out most for us.”
The Indians had graduated seven seniors from the state runner-up 1999 team and were under the direction of first year head coach Jeff Smith.
“Obviously, we had a lot of question marks,” Smith said. “We had a lot of unknowns and a lot of expectations based on what those teams prior to 2000 had accomplished. There was a lot of pressure and when we struggled early on it would have been very easy for that team to go in the bag, or put their heads down.”
Pickering said that she knew the team was something special before the season even began. She has fond memories of commuting back and forth to Willowcreek Middle School for spring workouts.
“The camaraderie that you felt from the first day was special,” she said. “The positive attitude that you could just feel between the freshmen, between the seniors, everybody, was great.”
Portage started the season by losing three of its first four, but finished by winning 26 consecutive games en route to the state championship. The Indians upset rival Valparaiso, which at the time had a loaded roster, to clinch the Duneland Athletic Conference regular season championship. In the postseason, they knocked off Chesterton in the sectional, Penn in the regional and state ranked No. 2 Booneville 5-3 in extra innings in the state semifinals.
Pickering snapped a scoreless tie with a bases-loaded double in the sixth inning of the state final to lift Portage to a 2-0 victory over previously once-beaten and state ranked No. 1 Decatur Central. Winning pitcher Anni Bartok, who tossed a complete game shutout, did not record a single strikeout.
“All 21 outs were fielded cleanly,” Smith said. “Early in the season we were having lapses on defense, and then in the state championship game we didn’t have an error and made all 21 outs without a strikeout; I thought that was really cool.”
Senior captain Angie Lazar, the team’s leadoff hitter and centerfielder, tore her ACL in practice the week of state. However, Lazar was still included in the postgame celebration after the final out was recorded.
“After we got the last out, I remember a dog pile that you see in the middle of a celebration and kind of being on the bottom of that with 20 girls and my coaching staff piled on,” Smith said. “Our team carried Angie around the bases, so that she could experience it as well.”
According to Smith, the school held a pep rally in the auditorium the following day to celebrate the state title. He said about 1,000 people came out to show their support.
Smith said he stays in touch with all of the players and coaches from that season and has even thrown around the idea of a 15 year reunion dinner. The coaching staff included Missy Fekete, Tim Haupt, Marcella Haupt and Dave Mattix.
Pickering has gone on to continue her career in sports as a groundskeeper at the professional level. She is currently the Gary RailCats head groundskeeper after previously serving in the same capacity with the Schaumburg Flyers. She worked for the Detroit Tigers grounds crew from 2006-2008. Winning the state title in 2000 ranks only behind working the World Series on her list of career highlights.
“Winning the state championship, especially in Indiana, regardless of what sport it is, is something that not everybody does,” she said. “Especially being a senior, not everybody finishes their career with a win and gets to go out on top.”
Smith said his advice to the 2000 team would be to simply enjoy the experience.
“The challenge is getting down there,” he said. “Just keep doing what you’re doing; go down and be aggressive. Take a couple of deep breaths and don’t be overwhelmed by the environment. They’ll be a couple thousand people there watching. It’s a great spectacle; it’s the ultimate team softball in the state. Don’t make it more than a game.”
2000 State Championship Game Box Score
Corinne Munoz, CF: 1-for-3
Tracy Kobar, SS: 1-for-3
Michele Pickering, 2B: 1-for-3
Ashley Safstrom, 1B: 1-for-3
Cheryl Buergler, 3B: 0-for-2
Jamie Sutton, DH: 0-for-3
Jamie Lewis, RF: 0-for-2
Becky Rodriguez, C: 0-for-1
Tina Chase, LF: 0-for-2
Anni Bartok, P: 7 IP, 6 H, 0 BB, 0 K, 0 R, Win