By Thad Livingston
Ten-year-old Harper Bails has a big goal in mind.
Next year at this time, as an 11-year-old, she wants to be playing for the Nebraska Thunder softball organization.
Don’t bet against her. There’s lineage here.
On Friday morning, chaperoned by her grandfather, young Bails showed up to the Papillion Landing Sports Complex to meet one of her heroes – a player her mother played with in the late 1990s at Papillion High School. And while her mom, the former Ashley Killeen, went on to play catcher at Iowa State, she was here to see the pitcher on those great Papio teams, one Peaches James.
“I knew Peaches was going to be here and I wanted to get her autograph,” Bails said, flashing a picture – presumably a family treasure – of mom Ashley catching for the Cyclones while Peaches was at the plate for NU during their Big 12 playing days. Once a teammate. Then a rival. Now an inspiration.
That was the theme of the morning when two of the best athletes to ever come out of Nebraska high schools were honored to help kick off USA Softball’s 17-team Class B 18-Under Northern National Tournament at the Papillion Landing Softball Complex.
At some point, it seems, the next great softball player is destined to come out of Papillion. It started with James, now James-Keaton, who handed the torch to Jordy Bahl, suddenly a household name in Nebraska since turning in her Oklahoma uniform for Husker togs. It was the perfect time to recognize the two hometown softball hurlers, separated by 25 years but whose names will now intersect, literally, at the city’s glistening new softball complex which opened in 2021.
During the event, the streets intersecting at the complex were renamed to Peaches James Way and Jordyn Bahl Boulevard.
About 150 folks showed up to watch, some who sauntered over from the playing fields to investigate the commotion out near the parking lots that held cars from as far away as Wisconsin, Wyoming and South Dakota.
What they found was a mutual admiration society.
Bahl, who became the face of NCAA softball and ESPN darling while pitching the dominant Sooners to their third straight title at the 2023 Women’s College World Series in early June, said James-Keaton was an inspiration while growing up and attending Papio High. “She gave girls like me something to strive for and she’s always been the name I hear about and have always wanted to be somewhat like,” she told the crowd. “Without her being that example, I don’t know what I would be striving for.”
James-Keaton, now a specialist in office problem-solving methodology at WoodmenLife in Omaha, said Bahl forced her into rooting for Oklahoma the last two years.
“They were always a rival but these last two years, I can say I was an Oklahoma fan,” she said. “I would ask my family, ‘When’s Oklahoma playing? What time are they playing?’ I probably won’t be (an OU fan) anymore now that you are (back in Nebraska). So I’m done. “Everytime I watch you play and pitch makes me think I could still go out there …,” she said. “I miss it so much.”
Husker softball coach Rhonda Revelle coached James-Keaton as a Husker and now gets Bahl too.
She is already realizing some similarities. One is pure athleticism.
Bahl has been in the Husker weight room for only a few weeks and is already leading by example.
“I’ve had some of our players come in and go, ‘Coach, I’ve got to up my game. Man, she’s so strong. She’s so athletic. I’ve got to try to stay up with Jordy.’ And I just smile.” It’s the same effect Revelle saw when James-Keaton was in that same weight room and recorded a vertical jump that, at the time, and maybe still, was higher than any other woman at Nebraska. A good vertical, she said, was always considered one of the greatest indicators of athleticism by Boyd Epley, NU’s famed strength and conditioning guru.
“I was so glad she was 5-6 because I was afraid Coach Cook would have tried to recruit her (for volleyball) if she were any taller.”
Looking on through all the revelry, glowing words from dignitaries and the street sign unveiling were three girls from Norfolk dressed in Golden Girl softball uniforms. They had just beaten the Fremont Force in a first-round game and came over to the street intersection to see one of their heroes.
Now 17, Tiana Price, Adyson Mlnarik and Tylar Humphrey have been watching Bahl since they were in eighth grade. Their coach at the time would encourage them to watch the Papio pitcher, then a high school sophomore, on clips floating around on social media. Use her as an example, the coach would tell them.
And so they have. Now they were meeting her.
“You get up there and don’t know what to say,” said Humphrey, after taking a quick pic with the surefire Husker star. “You are kind of in awe.”