Grins and wins

By Joe Stumpe | February 1, 2024

Deanna Polly-Faulkner pounds out a hit for the Team Rusty P’Nut Batters. Below, left to right, team members Karen West, Faulkner, Judy Shideler, Debbie Kendrick (front) and Denise Johnston prepare to fly to a tournament in St. George, Utah.

For years, Denise Johnston’s life followed a familiar pattern. Come spring, she and her husband, Rusty, would start preparing for women’s senior softball tournaments.

A roster would be assembled, practices held and the team would travel to tournaments from California to Florida.

Denise played and Rusty coached. Their team was known as the P’Nut Batters, for their favorite snack on these road trips.

In 2019, Rusty Johnston died after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. Rather than hang up her bat and glove, Denise decided to keep the team going in his honor.

There have been only a couple of changes. For one, the team is now called Team Rusty P’Nut Batters. And two, Denise and a handful of longtime teammates are in charge.

“It’s a joint coaching thing,” she said. “No way I could do it all.”

In truth, honoring her late husband wasn’t the only motivation for keeping the team together.

“The beauty of this is not softball,” she said. “This is about love, laughter, fun. Celebrating each other.”

But make no mistake, they like softball — and winning. Their most recent victories came in October at the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, where they brought home a silver medal in the 65+ age division.

“I just love getting back on the field and playing again — the competitiveness of it,” said Deanna Polly-Faulkner, who joined in 2022.

Women’s senior softball, played by women 45 and older, is enjoyed by thousands of women across the United States, according to Senior Softball-USA. The rules include a few modifications for player safety. For instance, sliding is not allowed, and there are two first bases and two home plates so that runners and fielders may avoid collisions.

Rusty Johnson

Rusty and Denise met at West High School, where Rusty played on the school’s powerhouse football teams of the mid 1960s. The couple played in co-ed softball leagues as young marrieds — until Denise remembers him telling her after one play, “I just saw three balls.” He was diagnosed with MS in 1982. The illness eventually ended his 13-year career as a Wichita firefighter, and he went to work at Ray Sales Company, which was started by Denise’s parents, Ray and Nahia Farha.

Rustry “kind of fell into” coaching but quickly discovered he loved it, Denise said. The job was complicated by the fact that there isn’t a senior women’s league here, so there were no local games to be played and only a small pool of players.

There are, however, numerous tournaments that draw teams from across the United States, and the P’Nut Batters started playing in them. The core of the team has always been Denise and several other local women — including Karen West, Debbie Kendrick, Judy Shideler, Terry Fowler and Margene Wiehe — who’ve played together since the 1990s. The Johnstons filled out the roster with players from across the country and Canada, who would meet the Wichitans wherever the tournament was to be played. 

“He (Rusty) was so good at understanding who could do what,” Denise said. “It was a gift.”

One year, with Rusty as coach, the P’Nut Batters lost their first game of a tournament, then won their way out of the loser’s bracket to take the championship.

“That was one of our greatest moments,” Denise said.

Just to get in some tournaments was a win. When registration for the Huntsman World Senior Games  tournament in St. George, Utah opens, Denise said, “If you’re not online and waiting at midnight, you can’t get in.” Last year, some 32,000 attended the event.

Other tournaments have taken them to Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, Nevada, New Mexico and Missouri. For a time they competed in a Topeka league.

When Rusty’s MS left him unable to walk, he bought a Segway electric scooter and used it to keep with his players. “They called him Segway man,” Denise said of her teammates.

She said Rusty loved her teammates and the feeling was mutual.

“I could go with each girl and tell you a story with them and Rusty. He always told me, ‘I don’t go for the ball. It’s all about the hugs.’”

It appears the P-Nut Batters will go on hugging a little longer. Denise intends to enter tournaments in 2024. 

“We should be grateful because everybody can’t do it,” she said of playing softball into her 70s. “These ladies, they’re my family.” 

No slacking off during her offseason

For Deanna Polly-Faulkner, there’s no off-season for exercise. Polly-Faulkner, who joined the Team Rusty P’Nut Batters in 2022, stays active year-round in the great outdoors and a basement workout room that would do a personal trainer proud (see photo at right).

“In cold weather, I work out at home. I try to get in at least an hour of aerobic and some weights. In the  summer, I love walking outside. I try to get a fast-paced walk for four miles. I don’t pay attention to steps,  I just try to get in that time and intensity.”

Hooking up with Team Rusty was a no-brainer for Polly-Faulkner, who played softball through high school, college and beyond, then transitioned to slow-pitch leagues until she “just got real busy with what I was doing.”

That included helping start the women’s intercollegiate athletic program at Friends University in 1979. After a year as head basketball coach, head softball coach and assistant volleyball coach, she was made women’s athletic director. 

She went on to a long career in the insurance business. For the last couple years, she’s coached fifth- and sixth-grade girls basketball at Trinity Academy.

Polly-Faulkner said missing workouts for a couple days leaves her “fit to be tied. I just don’t feel right. I get grumpy. It’s something I try to do every day.”

Not that she’s immune to the same temptations everyone faces.

“It’s kind of hard as you get older, and then I have a sweet tooth,” she said. “It’s hard to stay away from ice cream. It’s a never-ending battle.”