WALLA WALLA -- Last year, the Walla Walla Blue Devils rolled through the Class 4A state softball tournament to their first championship.
They hope to make it two in a row this season. And with the type of team they're fielding, it is hard to expect anything less.
In 2011, five Division I recruits played for the Blue Devils. Pitcher/first baseman Hope Klicker has since departed for the College of Charleston in South Carolina, but senior pitcher/first baseman Alyson Ambler, junior shortstop Libbie Jimenez, senior third baseman Andrea Hamada and junior catcher Kendsey Hill continue to wear the Walla Walla uniform.
"This is my 12th year here," Walla Walla coach Jerry Humphreys said. "This is definitely the team with the most Division I, top-level talent since I've been here."
For Ambler, Jimenez, Hamada and Hill, who have played together since they were about 10 years old, the years have passed more quickly than they imagined.
"Last spring, we realized we had only a couple months with each other on and off the field," said Ambler, who will attend Connecticut this fall. "We don't want the season to end because we're only three weeks into it, and it's already gone so fast."
Looking toward another state title run might be tempting, but the Blue Devils are trying to take the season one game at a time and cherish the bonds they have formed.
"We look at each other with respect," said Hamada, who will suit up next season for San Diego State. "We push each other, and we don't let other stuff get in the way of stuff. We just go with the flow, and we all get along. It's just really simple and easy."
Few teams have had the kind of success Walla Walla has enjoyed in recent years, and Humphreys attributes it to several factors.
"Those kids are motivated and kind of know where they want to be and have known for a while what they want to do," said Humphreys of his D-I quartet, which began playing on an all-star team coached by Ambler's father. "But we've had a good rec program in Walla Walla for the last 6-7 years at least. We've been putting out some strong kids from the system."
Many of them continue to play because of their love of the game -- and their desire to reach the next level.
"It's just something you put so much work into it from such a young age, and your friends and family have put so much into it, you don't want to let them down," said Hill, who is considering Seattle University and Utah State. "It's a huge part of me, and I can't imagine giving it up."
Hill is best friends with Ambler, and they were instrumental in last year's 1-0 victory over Marysville-Pilchuck for the state title. With one out in the bottom of the seventh inning and the bases loaded, Ambler fielded a squeeze bunt and threw to Hill, who made the tag. Ambler eventually recorded the final out on a strikeout.
"It's fun because we can sense what each other's thinking after a pitch," Hill said. "We know other situations without really communicating because we're around each other a lot. I've gotten to know what she likes to throw in different situations because we work a lot on that stuff."
And the work doesn't end in the offseason. Ambler has honed her skills with her club squad, American Pastime Gold, and many of her Wa-Hi teammates compete in summer and fall ball. Last summer, Jimenez, who verbally has committed to Boise State, played for the Washington Explosion 18 Gold, while Hamada was with the Northwest Bullets and Hill the Oregon Blaze.
Club ball has exposed them to different positions -- Hill can play third base, and Ambler has been an outfielder. Such versatility went a long way toward helping the Blue Devils become state champions. Klicker would pitch while Ambler patrolled first base, and the two would trade places the next game.
"It's pretty great when you have one pitcher the quality of Hope or Alyson," Humphreys said. "With two, it's pretty incredible."
With Klicker gone, Ambler will pitch most of the time, getting some help from sophomore Ellie Rassbach and senior Jordan Heiser.
"I pitch a lot during the summertime anyways for my travel ball team," Ambler said. "Usually I throw a lot of innings during the summer. Now that's going to be my only role basically for the better games. I'm kind of looking forward to it, though."
Hamada switched from shortstop to third base this year, replacing the graduated Ashley Bezdicek, and Jimenez shifted from second to take Hamada's place in the hole. Hamada is fine with the move because she expects to play third or first in college, but she misses last season's infield dynamic.
"We just had great chemistry last year, and we all played really well together," Hamada said. "Libbie had my back, and Ashley was at third, and I knew whoever was at first (Klicker or Ambler) would pick me up if I threw the ball in the dirt."
That kind of rapport extended across the field.
"It's definitely hard to find a team with no drama, and that, I think, was a huge help. We had no drama," Jimenez said. "We had huge leadership with Hope and Alyson, and I'm best friends with Hope. The no drama has a huge role because it's rare in sports. But we know all of us have the potential to go far in softball.
"We only lost three players, and we have a couple more really good other girls coming up with us, so I think this is going to be a drama-free year."
Still, Humphreys cautions that it might not be an easy road back to the trophy. After all, the Blue Devils' championship hopes nearly were derailed last year when all-league first-team outfielder TraeAnn Payne broke her ankle before the state tournament.
"There's a lot of stuff that's gotta go your direction," Humphreys said. "You can have all the talent in the world, but you still gotta have some luck to go along with it."