The Railroaders have won 13 games this spring and took first place in the MRL with a 10-2 mark.
“For the kids, it’s a big deal. They set a goal and it’s a step in the right direction,” Sparks softball coach Frank Avilla said. “They realized their goal. As a coaching staff, we’re hoping they will continue with the confidence they’ve shown in the last third of the season and they continue to keep believing in themselves. Anything can happen in this game if you get on a hot streak. Hopefully, they step up and do that.
“I’m excited for them because there is a group of seniors who have been here for four years and they’ve been working hard and have done everything right.”
Playoff positioning is based on how well Sparks did against the other Division 1-A Northern opponents. That dropped the Railroaders down to a fifth seed due to their 6-6 mark against MRL rivals Truckee and South Tahoe as well as crossover matchups against Fernley, Dayton, Fallon, Elko, Spring Creek and Lowry.
Sparks must travel to Elko to face the No. 4 seed Indians in a best-of-three series. The first game is Friday at 4 p.m. The teams will play again at 10 a.m. Saturday and at noon if necessary. The winner of each of the four series advances to a double-elimination regional tourney.
There is no doubt that the Maroon and Gold is riding a high, having won five of its last six games. But Sparks’ performances against competition outside of the MRL weren’t exactly confidence builders.
The Railroaders did beat Spring Creek, 13-9, after trailing by eight runs. However, the Spartans only won one 1-A North game this spring and earned the final playoff berth.
Sparks went 0-5 in the rest of its crossover contests and was outscored 55-1. That included a 10-0 loss to Elko a month ago in which the Railroaders committed 11 errors, were out-hit 12-5 and stranded nine baserunners.
But Sparks feels it is a different team at this point of the season.
“All the teams have gotten better, including us,” Avilla said. “We’ve gotten through a good learning curve and we’re looking for good things. We could have been hosting if we could have just won one more in the crossovers. We played the crossovers early. To be a fifth seed in this league, it’s kind of an honor.”
In fact, the Railroaders believe the Indians might take them lightly based on the first meeting of the year.
“I know they do. They think they’re going to run us over and kick us out just like that because of how we played,” senior third baseman Riley Regas said. “But they haven’t seen the team we are today.”
Sparks knows defense will be key come playoff time. Elko posted an eight spot against the Rail City squad in the third inning of the crossover league matchup, helped by many of those 11 errors.
“Our defense at the beginning of the year, we were not on point,” Regas said. “We didn’t care. We didn’t have the heart to play. After our first three weeks, we pulled it together and we don’t make errors, rarely anymore. I know we can beat Elko.”
No matter what happens this weekend, Avilla said it will be icing on the cake. Sparks softball has not been in the postseason since 2006 and it likely will be riding the arm of sophomore ace pitcher Jocelyn Vasquez.
After last year’s team struggles, the players are excited to get their first taste of the postseason.
“The only thing I can think of in my head is ‘finally,’” Vasquez said. “Our team worked all together and hopefully we can string some wins together. I think this year’s practices have been more intense and we all have more tenacity.”
Regas shared similar sentiments in her final season with Sparks.
“I’m stoked because being at Sparks, I never thought we would make it until this summer when we all started coming together,” Regas said. “I enjoy playing with my team and I know we can go all the way because we all have the determination and heart to do it … Last year, we got 10-runned every game. This year, we’re on top of our league. Especially it being my senior year, it makes it even better because it’s my last year to do it.”