April Utecht has built quite the home run ball collection at her West Richland house.
Some of her early home run balls are lined up along her bedroom bookshelves. Several from her final season on the Richland High School softball team form an eye-catching, neon yellow centerpiece on the dining table.
The ball she hit for her first over-the-fence homer at Richland’s Columbia Playfield sits in a small glove trophy in the living room. It’s dated May 23, 2010 — she was 13.
Utecht isn’t sure how much damage her long balls have inflicted on vehicles parked outside Columbia Playfield or other ballparks over the years. She knows she once put a dent in the car of Richland teammate Abby Perryman’s father.
“He was happy because I hit the ball really hard,” Utecht said, “but he was like, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ ”
There’s no doubt Utecht did a bang-up job at the plate. She finished her four-year varsity career with 57 home runs, not including the walkoff grand slam she hit at a senior all-star showcase May 31 in Lacey. She batted .583 with 235 RBIs and struck out just 25 times. She’s often talked about in the same breath as past Mid-Columbia stars Ashley Richards (Richland), Andrea Rogers (Pasco), Holly Krzan (Hanford) and Ashley Thompson (Connell).
Utecht has found, however, that pushing herself to maintain a high level of production almost inevitably leads to frustration.
“I just want to go out and do what I want to do, have my team there with me and work with my team and do whatever I can, and just play softball,” she said.
Utecht is the Tri-City Herald’s All-Area Softball Player of the Year, capping an incredible high school career for the infielder/catcher, who will suit up next year for the University of Oregon. The Ducks have appeared in three of the past four Women’s College World Series.
“We see a lot of high-quality kids who have athletic ability but not work ethic,” Richland coach Casey Emery said. “She did everything to make sure no one caught up to her.”
That included taking hacks after dinner in the batting cage her father, Tim, built in the family backyard.
Tim Utecht, a former Kennewick High School baseball standout, played in the Milwaukee Brewers organization from 1982-85. After working almost 28 years as a Hanford patrolman, he retired and became an assistant coach this spring for his daughter’s high school team.
“From watching what she’s done, how she hits, you don’t see that every day,” said Tim, a career. 260 hitter in the minors. “Usually you hit for average or hit for power. She hits for average and for power.”
Last spring, however, April grew tired of opponents pitching around her. She wasn’t as selective with her swing, and some of her numbers dipped. This year, thanks to a change in her mind-set, she achieved career highs in batting average (.688), hits (64), runs (58), homers (18) and RBIs (70), even as she recovered from an early-season elbow injury.
“I’m not gonna hit every single pitch,” Utecht said. “It’s like a waiting game. You’ve got to wait and see what one is yours. I learned to be patient up in the box.”
Just as Mid-Columbia Conference coaches have recognized Utecht’s abilities, twice rewarding her with player of the year honors, her enthusiasm on the field hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“I don’t think I’ve seen her with a bad attitude or unhappy,” Hanford coach Lesley Guereca said. “She looks like she has a great time playing softball. She does a good job of bringing that passion to her team.”
The Bombers went 14-0 in the MCC this year and, despite missing out on district and regional championships, reached their first state final since 1993. They lost to Tahoma 9-1 in the Class 4A title game in Spokane and finished the season 24-4.
“Our goal was to make it to the championship game, and we did it,” Utecht said. “It’s sad we didn’t win it, but we have to be happy with the fact we got in the championship game. It’s a moment you never forget playing in that game.”
Six Richland players made the All-Area first team: Utecht, who primarily played at first base; shortstop Stephanie Merwin; catcher Paige Liikala; outfielder Alicia Maul; pitcher Brandi Andrews; and Perryman at utility.
By all accounts, Utecht is an all-star teammate, admired for her talent, positivity and willingness to help others improve.
“When I first started catching, I was a newbie,” Liikala said. “I didn’t know anything. But playing next to her in winter workouts or in practice, just the tips like framing or making sure I stay on my toes or throwdowns, she taught me everything I need to know about catching.”
Utecht often works out with Liikala, Merwin and Maul, and Perryman has been seen fine-tuning her swing at a Little League field near her house after practice. Utecht hopes younger Bombers learn from their example. In her four seasons at Richland, the Bombers had a 95-19 overall record and went to state every year.
“We tell them how much time we put into ourselves,” Utecht said. “When you put your time and effort into the sport you love, it’s gonna make you better at the next level.”
Walla Walla second baseman Jordy Storm, third baseman Lauren Likes and outfielder Lauren Hoe also are on the All-Area first team along with Hanford outfielder Lexi Alaniz, Liberty Christian pitcher Kiersten Peterson and Othello pitcher Dominique Martinez.
The All-Area Coach of the Year is Liberty Christian’s Jacob Bush, who guided the Patriots to the Class 1B state championship in their first tournament appearance.