Unsung heroes key softball success

May 22, 2013 

Chances are, there’s at least one marquee player on each of the 96 softball teams vying for a state championship this weekend at various sites around the state of Washington.

But for each big-time slugger, there’s a leadoff batter or a No. 2 hitter setting the table, getting on base so the team can tack on another run. For every big arm racking up strikeouts in the pitching circle, there are eight other players making plays in the field and backing each other up to prevent runs on defense.

“There are nine positions on the field. If you’ve got a weak link out there, it’s going to get exposed,” Richland coach Casey Emery said. “Each player on defense is as important as the other.

April Utecht, Richland’s sophomore catcher, earned Mid-Columbia Conference player of the Year, but Emery swears that second baseman Courtney Kent was one of the most important players on his defense this season despite not being recognized in the MCC all-conference voting.

“That one stung me. She batted around .400 and takes runs off the board with her defense,” Emery said. “(Second base) is where it makes the most sense to put your best athlete. There’s so much small ball in our game, so you’re always sprinting to first base all the time to cover bunts and setting up for cutoffs.

“She saved us two runs with a diving backhand stop in the first inning against Mead (in a regional elimination game). She’s been rock-solid.”

Emery also singled out senior third baseman Monika Hebky, who struggled with her fielding at shortstop after recovering from surgery on her thyroid gland in her junior year. It wasn’t an easy adjustment, considering Hebky wasn’t used to playing the hot corner, but she handled the move with grace and class.

“Shortstop was her position, and she wanted it,” Emery said of the second-team all-MCC pick. “I asked her 1-on-1 if she was disappointed, and she said, ‘Casey, I just want to go to state.’ ”

Kamiakin was facing a potentially hard fall after losing several big-name players from last year’s 3A state championship team. But coach Tim Bisson watched as a team loaded with young talent found its center early in the season thanks to an unselfish group that supported each other from Day 1.

“Even before tryouts started, we were all just one big family,” sophomore outfielder Carlie Wyant said. “It has always been about the team, never about one person.”

Bisson credits Wyant with a positive attitude despite splitting time between JV and varsity. That was critical to keeping up the team-first mentality.

“When it’s her time to play outfield she sprints out there, and she’s ready to go when we need a courtesy runner,” Bisson said.

Bisson said it’s not even necessary for a player to participate on the field to contribute to a victory. He said Sam Booth, a junior catcher/first baseman, will lend her expertise while sitting next to him in the dugout.

“She’s been helping me call pitches all year. A couple times I’ve been ready to call a pitch, and she’ll say, ‘Remember the last time you called that pitch, it didn’t work out so well,’ ” Bisson said.

Jessica Edminster, a senior outfielder, helped answer the call after the Braves graduated star pitcher Lindsey Kamphuis.

“She picked up the first win of her entire career in a must-win game against Shadle Park (a 13-3 regional victory that clinched a state berth),” Bisson said. “In the middle of the year, she said, ‘Hey, I used to pitch. Give me the ball.’

“You just can’t ask for better.”

Connell, the defending Class 1A champion, has the ultimate weapon in pitcher/hitter extraordinaire Ashley Thompson. But despite all the strikeouts and no-hitters, the BYU-bound senior certainly can’t do it all by herself.

Hope Sawyer, a senior outfielder, takes advantage of the fact that nobody wants to pitch to Thompson. Sawyer hit .682 and often drove in Thompson after teams walked her to face Sawyer. Savannah Egbert, a senior catcher/third baseman, was in a similar position, coming through when the situation called for a clutch hit.

“Savannah is just a pure athlete,” Eagles coach Andy Sawyer said of the two-sport standout. “Once she decides to play just softball, she’ll have a great career ahead.”

Connell hasn’t had to worry about run production this year, which helps Thompson stay relaxed on the mound. The Eagles even have a backup plan should (gulp!) Thompson get injured, as Kenna Mathis is ready to fill in should the need arise.

“We can score a lot of runs with Kenna on the mound,” the coach said.

Othello, which returns to the 2A state tournament after missing last year, has several role players who made it possible for the Huskies to make their 16th state appearance in the last 18 years.

“Everybody expects Kim Bullis to do something, but when a role player comes through, it lifts everybody up,” Othello coach Rudy Ochoa said. “In our last (state-qualifying) game against Deer Park, Tori Zambrano laid down a beautiful bunt to set up a run. Slap-hitters don’t get that much recognition, but she’s very good at that.”

Ochoa also singled out freshman outfielder/shortstop Kirsten Quigley, a No. 9 hitter with great speed that essentially turns her into a second leadoff hitter. Junior Morgan Logan lost her starting job this season, but Ochoa said she hasn’t lost her amazing attitude.

“She always has something good to say, and when she gets in she always contributes,” Ochoa said.

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