Separated by 20 miles along U.S. 77, Giddings and La Grange are natural rivals in most high school sports.
High school softball has not been one of them. When it comes to softball, La Grange has been the proverbial hammer and Giddings the proverbial nail.
Back in June, La Grange turned McCombs Field into its virtual home field while winning the UIL Class 4A state championship. The Lady Leopards capped a 40-2 season by claiming their second state title in three years.
Stacked with college-bound players, coach Arthur Behrend’s team finished the season ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today. Pitcher Missy Zoch signed with DePaul, shortstop Blake-Ann Fritsch headed to Texas A&M and second baseman Briana Angel, the championship game MVP, departed for Texas-Arlington.
Simmering beneath the feel-good story, though, was the discontent of a group of Lady Leps fans who wanted a new head coach. When their criticism reached a boiling point, Behrend and his top assistant, Kadie Dodd, left for employment elsewhere.
Suddenly, the dormant La Grange-Giddings softball rivalry had found some traction.
On March 31, La Grange defeated Giddings 5-4 in their only matchup so far this season, scoring three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning. The District 20-4A rematch arrives Friday night in Giddings.
Behrend, still testy about his tempestuous departure from La Grange, has led Giddings to a 21-7 record this season, including a 6-1 district mark in 20-4A. The Buffaloes are one game behind La Grange (17-6, 6-0) as they head into the final game of the regular reason.
“We’re pretty good,” Behrend said. “From a hitting standpoint, our team in Giddings is comparable to what we had in La Grange last year. The biggest difference is that we had Missy.”
Behrend said his goal at Giddings is to change the culture of a softball program that has never played at the state tournament.
In La Grange, Behrend’s replacement is a familiar face to Lady Leps fans. Sharon Vinklarek coached La Grange from 1995 to 2005 and led the team to the Class 3A state championship in her final season. She returned to coaching this spring after a 12-year absence. During the break, she watched her son, Logan, help La Grange to the Class 3A state title in baseball in 2013, a year before he joined the Texas Longhorns football team as a walk-on quarterback.
Vinklarek describes her team as “a work in progress,” one led by pitcher Darby Fitzpatrick (14-4, 1.93 ERA) and catcher Hatti Moore (.357, 6 home runs). First baseman Shelby Dixon has been the team’s most consistent hitter (.535, 6 homers, 33 RBIs) and right fielder Abby Gage (.447) also has been a significant contributor.
Now in her first season at A&M, Fritsch said La Grange’s tradition of excellence begins “at the T-Ball level.”
“They learn early what it’s like to become part of a team,” she said. “A lot of girls go on to local select teams to play year-round. The kids that really want to face harder competition go on to more competitive teams that travel. We are lucky to be in a location that allows us to go to Austin or Houston to play on competitive teams.”
In Giddings, Behrend still harbours strained feelings about his departure from La Grange. He said some parents claimed he was “too hard on the girls.”
“We had some parents who wanted me gone,” Behrend said. “They didn’t go through the chain of command and we had a new superintendent (Bill Wagner). They were speaking to him. I’m big on loyalty. After all I had done. …”
La Grange recorded 205 victories during Behrend’s his six seasons in La Grange, capped by an 8-1 victory over Paris North Lamar in the Class 4A state-title game back in June.
“People in La Grange like to brag about their 65-game district winning streak,” he said. “What they won’t tell you is that 59 of those (wins) came with me as head coach.”
When told of Behrend’s comments, Wagner declined to get into a war of words.
“Our softball student-athletes achieved a high level of success under his leadership and guidance,” Wagner said. “We find our community to be very supportive of our student-athletic interests and at times, passions can run high.”
Behrend’s first team in Giddings is hitting a collective .404. Top players include right fielder Kamrey Keilberg (.451, 5 home runs, 30 RBIs), second baseman Tara Oltmann (.618, 34 RBIs) and Mackenzie Oltmann (.404, 4 homers).
Behrend said he has enjoyed his first season in Giddings, adding that his drive to work from his Bastrop County home has been reduced by 20 miles.
“I just enjoy watching kids succeed,” he said. “Our goal is to win (a state championship) here, too. You don’t have to win all the games, just the right games.”