When the Kamiakin Braves play May 29 in the state high school softball tournament, their goal isn’t to win a fourth consecutive championship.
The Kennewick team wants to win its last game of the season, wherever it falls in the tournament.
“We try to focus on what we can do, control what we can control,” Kamiakin coach Tim Bisson said. “Every time we break the huddle, it’s make sure we don’t forget why we’re here, what we’re doing it for, play the game for a reason and have some fun while we’re doing it.”
When the Braves get to the field for their state Class 3A opener against North Thurston High School in Lacey, they will have 19 players plus one.
That 20th spot belongs to their teammate, Kate Austin.
Nine days after helping Kamiakin win the 2014 state title, Kate, a 16-year-old junior, was found dead along with her 12-year-old brother, Ethan, at their Kennewick home. Benton County officials ruled the June 9 deaths a murder-suicide, saying Ethan shot his sister multiple times before turning the gun on himself.
Almost a year has gone by since the siblings’ deaths. The Braves don’t focus on the details of the case. Instead, they’ve chosen to honor their teammate and her role in what the Braves have achieved these past few seasons.
“We just for sure wanted to do something for Kate because Kate’s been on varsity since freshman year,” senior pitcher Cassie Ramsey said. “We knew it was going to be really hard. She was a part of our family.”
Coping with loss
The Kamiakin Braves are the only large-school softball team in Washington to have won three state titles in a row.
Kate was on the varsity roster at the end of the 2012 season, when the Braves finished with an undefeated record and their first state title. In 2013, she pitched in the state championship victory against Prairie of Vancouver.
She stood out most among her teammates for her big smile, her laugh and her stubbornness.
When the Braves went to Lacey’s Regional Athletic Complex to practice sliding on the turf infield before last year’s state tournament, Kate wore shorts.
“(Bisson) told her to bring sweats, and she definitely didn’t, but she slid anyway to prove him wrong, and that’s how she was,” senior second baseman Jenna Castilleja said.
Kate was especially close to Cassie. They got accepted to the Tri-Tech Skills Center’s nursing program together and mapped out their senior year schedules so they would have the same classes.
“I wanted Kate to be there with me later on, like with my other friends,” Cassie said. “I wanted her to be there when I got married, and we were going to go to college together. When that happened, I’m like, ‘We still had so many things to do, and now they’re just going away.’ ”
In the days after Kate’s death, Bisson, a psychology, sociology and history teacher at Kamiakin, opened his classroom to grieving students. He understood the need to mourn. It wasn’t the first tragedy he had experienced during his career. When Bisson worked at Kiona-Benton City High School, popular Benton City teacher and coach Bob Mars was fatally stabbed in the middle school in 2004.
“He really helped us by saying that you need to talk about the memories that she gave you and the things that make you smile,” said Jenna, who roomed with Kate during state their freshman year. “That really helped relieve the grief for sure.”
A picture of Kate hangs in the Braves’ dugout during games, along with her Kamiakin No. 18 jersey. She’s smiling with eye black and gold glitter smeared along her cheeks.
That photo has been with the Braves since the start of this season. It was a difficult beginning as the team tried to figure out how to replace six seniors from last year’s squad. All of them had played key parts in Kamiakin’s state championship streak.
Newcomers and veteran players struggled to adjust to different positions and hefty expectations, as well as the hole Kate’s death left in the fabric of the team.
The Braves lost their first three games.
“I never had doubts in the team,” said senior Carlie Wyant, who this year became the full-time starting shortstop. “I had doubts in myself because I didn’t know if I could live up to the person that I’m capable of being.”
But thanks to Bisson’s belief in them, players began to gain confidence that they could work through their mistakes.
“He’s definitely the most encouraging coach I’ve ever had,” Carlie said. “And he’s also the coach that I feel like I could always go to, no matter what, to talk about anything. I could talk about my entire life with him because he’s that kind of guy that is always going to be there for you.”
The more time the Braves spent together, throwing around a football to get loosened up at practice or going on a picnic during spring break, the more they built trust in one another. Soon, different players began to break through at crucial times.
Junior third baseman Kristen Schoffstall hit a three-run home run to lead the Braves to a come-from-behind win against Hanford High. Freshman outfielder Madison Matthews started a double play that sealed a one-run victory over Walla Walla.
“Chemistry’s been something we’ve tried to work on all year,” said Bisson, who’s in his third season as Kamiakin’s head coach. “I’ve had teams that are a lot easier to come together. I’ve had teams that are a lot harder to come together. They just keep working, and they keep finding a way, and sometimes we don’t look like we’re this unified ‘everybody’s family,’ but I think that is actually family.
“Not all families get along all the time, and this one gets together when they need to, and they support each other and have each other’s back.”
‘State for Kate’
The Braves fell short of their goal of winning the Mid-Columbia Conference title earlier this month, finishing second to Richland, but went on to be crowned Class 3A district and regional champions. They will enter the state tournament with a 16-6 season record.
“If you’d told me at the beginning of the season that we’d make it to state and be as close as we are, I’m not sure I’d believe you because we started out the season 0-3,” Jenna said. “It was really hard to come back from that knowing that everyone was watching. Everyone was like, Kamiakin, we have to meet all these expectations and do all these great things.
“At the beginning of the season, I was kind of doubting our ability to do great things, which is terrible, but knowing our team now, we’ve come together so much, and we’ve definitely grown as a group for sure.”
They also believe Kate’s out there with them on the field.
“Every time I step onto the mound, I talk to Kate,” Cassie said. “‘OK, I need your help with this screwball,’ or, ‘I need your help with this curveball,’ because she was amazing at her curveballs.”
Even players who never met Kate, such as freshman first baseman/pitcher Andria Skeels, feel as though they know her through the stories they’ve heard from their coaches and older teammates. Andria says she has done her best to stand by those who are missing their friend, their sister.
“Just give them a hug and feel like it will be OK,” Andria said. “She’s still here with us right now. And you just comfort them and say that we’re doing this for her — state for Kate. This is in honor of her, basically. It’s heartwarming to be able to do that for each other.”
And the legacy of these Braves will extend beyond their final game, whatever the outcome.
“I’ll remember the fight we had in our team,” Bisson said. “I’ll remember playing well with a heavy heart.”