Outlaws bid farewell
After 7-year run, local players going separate ways
About 30 minutes had passed since the Lansing Outlaws finished playing their final softball game together, but six of the players were still there.
The Outlaws had dropped a 3-2 decision to the Tipton (Mo.) Tigers at the American Fastpitch Association National Tournament, but Maggie Aus, Jessica Hauver, Jessica Kane, Carolyn McKune, Dana Sanders and Jessica Stark continued to linger around the ball fields at the Youth Sports Inc. Sports Complex in Lawrence. The six girls - the remaining originals from the first Outlaws squad seven years ago - took their time heading to the parking lot. They didn't want this night to end.
"We wanted to come back tomorrow, even though it's going to be 100 degrees again, because we love being out here," McKune said.
But this was it - the end. After seven years of playing softball together, after hundreds of games, after winning a 12-and-under state title, after making lifetime friends, the Outlaws came to the end of the road.
"I'm kind of surprised that it lasted this long," Outlaws coach Russ Stark said. "A lot of it is to their credit. They wanted to stay together."
It was the fall of 1998 when five fathers convened to take the first steps toward forming the Lansing Outlaws. Dave McKune, Russ Stark, Gary Aus, Rob Kane and Dave Norwood met in McKune's living room and discussed to possibility of creating a competitive softball team that could give their daughters greater experience.
Their girls had attended camps or taken lessons from then-LHS softball coach Rhonda Lang, so their fathers simply were doing a little long-range planning.
"At that time we were thinking we'd start something where teams (start young and) keep moving up," Russ Stark said. "We thought it'd help build a program for Lansing High School because they'd just started softball."
The Outlaws were good from the very beginning. Rob Kane handled the head coaching duties and the girls learned quickly. They started in a doubleheader league in the fall of 1998 and then exploded on the scene in 1999. That summer they won the USSSA state championship and were awarded certificates from Mayor Kenneth Bernard.
Everything wasn't perfect, however. Some girls learned slower than others, and some simply didn't like each other at first.
"I didn't play a lot my first year. I didn't have a lot of fun, actually," Aus said with a laugh. "I think for 12-year-olds there was a little more drama than needed."
Added McKune: "Maggie and I hated each other until freshman year because we fought for every position in every sport."
The Outlaws underwent numerous changes during the next five seasons. The roster shook up considerably. Three players left to focus on volleyball. Hauver moved to Arizona. Kane left to play for another team. Russ Stark took over as head coach in 2001 with Brian Sanders as his assistant.
Despite the changes, the Outlaws continued to win games and develop players. McKune settled in as an everyday second baseman. Aus developed a knack for snagging ground balls at third base. Stark took her cannon of an arm to left field. Sanders played shortstop and pitched. Emma Hoagland played first base and Nicole Holland joined the squad in 2003 as a versatile infielder and outfielder.
The girls also grew closer together during that time.
"Playing this game, being on this team and spending the whole summer together has just brought all of us so much closer," McKune said. "It's become more of, we play because of who we're with, and who we're playing with makes us love the game even more."
Over time, the girls continued to improve and the program seemed to be paying off. Seven Outlaws - Aus, McKune, Sanders, Stark, Kane, Hoagland and Holland - were a part of the 2004 Lansing High squad that went 19-7, earned the first state tournament berth in school history and ultimately placed third.
The Lansing High softball team was unable to earn a return trip to state in 2005, but as the prep season wound down, the girls on the Outlaws talked eagerly about the summer season. They knew it would be their last one together, and they had high expectations.
Hauver had moved back to Kansas and was going to play summer ball. Kane planned to rejoin the Outlaws. Aus, Holland, McKune, Sanders and Stark also would be back.
"We all started when we were, what, 12?" Hauver said. "I think it started as a lot of us just liking softball, and then we got together and grew from there. We just love hanging out with each other."
For 10 weeks this summer the Outlaws spent every Wednesday night and most weekends together. They opened the summer on a 10-4-2 tear before running into a few bumps the rest of the way.
Unlike previous summers, though, they didn't worry much about wins and losses. There wasn't time to practice. Most of the girls worked. Instead, this final summer was about being together one last time.
"A lot of us have been friends since we were little," Kane said. "I've been friends with Carolyn and Maggie since forever ago, and that's what's cool. We've been able to play with friends."
Although the Outlaws weren't particularly concerned with the final result of games, there was one game that truly mattered: the final one against Tipton. They'd struggled in pool play and then dropped their first game of pool play before holding off the Lawrence Phenix T's in a dramatic 6-5 victory in an elimination game. Against Tipton, the Outlaws knew they had to be at their best if they were going to see another day.
"We knew there was a possibility of this being our last game," Aus said. "We wanted to go out with some kind of a bang, so I think we all were fighting really hard to stay in it."
In a game that was loaded with controversy, solid defense and lots of runners left on base, the Outlaws were edged 3-2 with two outs in the final inning.
In many ways they played a nearly perfect game. On this night, however, it just wasn't enough.
"We played a good game," Russ Stark said. "We hit the ball well. We moved runners. We did everything we were supposed to and that we've spent this time learning how to do. We just lost to a good team. You can't hang your head about that. We would've liked to have gone on, but at the same time the thing that makes me feel the best is that we went out in style."
"I'm extremely proud of them," he added. "They're a little emotional now. Being together that long, you develop that camaraderie, so to think it's over is tough on them."
THE NEXT STEP
As the Outlaws lingered around the field after their final game, there were no hanging heads. There were a few gripes about the umpire, some laughs, a few tears and plenty of hugs. The sadness wasn't all about losing the game though. It had more to do with losing a chapter of their lives that they'd grown to love; one that'd brought them some of their best friends.
"You start out and you don't think you're going to like any of the girls," Aus said as tears welled in her eyes. "And then you just fall in love with all of them. Through the years playing with these girls, I have so many life-long friendships now."
The question now is whether they'll play softball together again. Sanders, Stark and Holland will be seniors at LHS this fall. The other four will go their separate ways. Kane will pitch at Kansas City Kansas Community College in the fall. Aus will head to Wichita State, McKune to the University of Kansas and Hauver to Kansas State.
Russ Stark has hinted that a brief reunion tour could happen next summer if enough girls were free to play in a tournament or two. Meanwhile, McKune plans on organizing a slow-pitch team.
Regardless of what the future holds, the Outlaws know a chapter of their softball careers - and of their childhood - is closed. Their days of playing competitive softball together may be over, but the memories and friendships they formed will stay with them forever.
"It became more than just playing softball," Russ Stark said. "It was a part of their lives, and now it's gone. We'll see how it goes from here."
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