In 1997, Nanticoke’s Senior League softball team made it to the Little League World Series. But back then, Roxana didn’t host the event and Delaware District III didn’t have an automatic bid into the tournament. They had to hack their way through the district, state and regional tournament, like thousands of other teams around the country, before snagging third place in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Three years ago, Roxana wooed the World Series games to come to town and, until this year, Nanticoke hadn’t represented its district.
District III’s representative the past two years, Laurel, fended off Nanticoke last year in a two-game championship series after sending them to the loser’s bracket early in the tournament.
Nanticoke beat Laurel 4-1 in the first game, leaving them in a put-out or get-out situation in Game 2. Laurel won the second game and Nanticoke’s World Series hopes were dashed.
But this is a new year and, though many of the players on the team are unchanged (nine of 11 possible players returning), their confidence is at an all-time high as they enter their first World Series after beating Cape Henlopen 4-0 for the right to represent Delaware District III in the World Series.
Since Nanticoke had a more direct road to the World Series, they found themselves with ample time to prepare for the upcoming games.
Rather than simply practice, manager Mike Riggleman and seven of his 13 girls swapped out their Nanticoke uniforms for Sussex Chix gear and traveled out to Columbus, Ohio, to compete for the National Softball Association championships.
Some 100 teams from around the country paid homage to NSA championship tournament but only eight teams finished higher than the Chix — which may bode well for Nanticoke in the World Series, according to Riggleman.
“We hadn’t been in a real close game in the district tournament but we’re pretty well tested,” Riggleman said of his players’ achievement at the NSA national tournament. “And if our core players are confident, then it kind of rubs off on the other girls.”
“It’s like saying hitting is contagious. Well, it certainly works that way in this case,” Riggleman added.
Nanticoke’s district championship bout with Laurel surprised them because of how tight they played and how close they came to representing their district in the World Series.
“Last year, I don’t know if they thought they could compete. I knew we could, but this year has been a major confidence boost. We’ve had a really good year and I guess we’re coming in pretty hot.”
Riggleman has 20 years of Little League coaching experience but didn’t make the transition to softball for 11 years.
“I didn’t think I’d ever leave baseball, but now that I’m here I don’t think I’d ever go back,” Riggleman said. “Softball is a lot closer game, and if you ask any umpire they’ll tell you the players show more respect.”
“You can really get a group together that really functions as a team and that makes it more of a team,” he added.
Since softball isn’t like basketball, where one or two players make a considerable impact on a game’s outcome, Riggleman emphasizes field awareness and the team game.
“Mike’s a great strategist and he emphasizes the mental part of the game,” assistant head coach Mark Fisher said.
There was one situation during the district tournament in which Nanticoke had base runners at first and second on a two-out, full-count situation, and one of their base runners stopped when the base was hit.
Fortunately, Nanticoke outscored their opponents 21-0 and the mental lapse didn’t cost them the opportunity to play for the World Series. But awareness will be the difference in winning and losing.
“Physical errors are going to happen. I make physical errors every day, but Mike wants them to be thinkers on the field,” Fisher said.
“This team is very capable of winning the World Series, and I think we are talented enough to adapt to different styles of play,” he added of the Nanticoke team.
Since Nanticoke’s squad is so tight from top to bottom and have been together for so many years, Riggleman is confident that they all will be on the same page come Aug. 6.
“It helps a lot (coaching these girls over the years) because you know what to expect from them and they know what to expect from you. If I make a decision or ask a player to do something, then they know that I believe that they can do it,” Riggleman said. “And in the end they end up making me look a lot better.”
With only two days separating Nanticoke from the start of the Little League World Series, Riggleman hopes that Sussex County softball fans will trek down to Roxana each day to rally around their team and help them bring a World Championship to Delaware, District III.
“We’ve worked really hard to get to this point and we consider it a privilege to represent District III in the World Series. But the one thing that would make this even better would be to get a really nice turnout not only from Seaford but from District III,” Riggleman said of attendance at the series. “It had to be a tremendous boost for Laurel last year.”