PENDLETON — As the girls left the diamond at Oregon State University’s Softball Complex last June, weighed down by a 7-6 state title game loss to West Albany, coach Tim Cary had a message for his team.
“There’s no reason we can’t come back here next year,” the coach said.
Whether the statement was a rallying cry for hope or just a bandage to ease the stinging shards of broken dreams, Pendleton has now come full circle. The Buckaroos are back in 2012, still looking to claim the school’s first softball championship.
Pendleton (22-7) has already exercised one demon. The Columbia River Conference champions avenged last year’s title defeat by blanking West Albany 5-0 on Tuesday. But for the memories of that loss to finally subside, the team will need one more win, first baseman Jory Spencer said.
“It was kind of like we hadn’t expected to get there so we didn’t expect to do it again,” Spencer said, adding that the team felt like Pendleton may have missed its only shot. “It kind of breaks your spirit a little bit. You wonder, ‘Can we make it this far again?’ ”
The Bucks struggled in league play last year, finishing tied for third — i.e. tied for last — with a 5-7 record. This spring was a different story and as Pendleton kept piling up the CRC wins, the team started to believe in another trip to Corvallis, Spencer said.
“Once we got past it being just a possibility, that’s when we started expecting more from ourselves,” she said, “and expecting to get there and expecting to get it done.”
The latest edition of Pendleton softball doesn’t look much different than the 2011 version. Kristen Crawford is still killing it in the pitching circle and the bats can still produce. The team only lost a pair of seniors in the offseason — last year’s championship game MVP Beca McGrath being the most notable.
The parts that remain look the same but they’ve gotten better, outfielder Courtney-Schumacher Sweek said. Crawford went from pitching staff leader to legitimate ace with state-wide recognition. The senior has eight shutouts on her resume this season.
The most noticeable difference is at the plate, Schumacher-Sweek said. The offense produced about one run more per game this year, averaging 6.25, but the plate discipline that the girls have developed is their best new weapon.
“We gained more even though we lost a lot with our seniors last year,” she said. “We gained even more back.”
Clutch bats dot Pendleton’s arsenal, something that could have changed the championship outcome against West Albany. That game ended with stranded runners on second and third base in the seventh inning.
Silverton (22-8) has the bats and an arm to match. Pitcher Katie Mannion is rolling on a four-game shutout streak that included a no-hitter against The Dalles Wahtonka on Tuesday in the semifinals. The team has yet to allow a run in the postseason.
“Mannion is our anchor, she’s just a straight competitor,” Silverton coach Ralph Cortez said.
Shortstop Haley Hibbs won the Mid-Willamette Conference player of the year honor this season and highlights an infield with seniors at every corner. The offense owns a 22-0 run differential since the end of the regular season.
Pendleton can take comfort in knowing that though the Foxes average 7.67 runs per outing, a solid hurler can shut Silverton down. The Foxes couldn’t score until the eighth inning of a 1-0 contest with The Dalles Wahtonka.
Pendleton went 4-0 against the Eagle Indians and CRC pitcher of the year Ann-Marie Guischer, out-scoring the league foe 27-9.
Those games were always full of energy, said CRC player of the year Crawford.
“I don’t think it gets too much in my head but at the same time I think I rise to whatever competition I’m doing,” Crawford said. “When I’m throwing against a really hard team I have a tendency to throw higher than I usually do or better than I usually do.”
The Bucks have played hot softball since the end of March. Pendleton has won 11 of 12 games and 19 of its last 21.
But Silverton is scorching. The Foxes have lost just one game since April 2, a span that has included wins in 21 of 22 contests. An ugly 1-7 start to the season that included a 1-3 mark in league play meant the Foxes struggled to keep pace with Dallas and West Albany in the Mid-Willamette.
“We had new kids coming in and some new positions for others,” said Cortez, a 12th-year coach who has resurrected a perennial last-place program. “I think it was just a mixing and jelling kind of thing. But I knew what we had.”
Silverton finished third in the conference and entered the playoffs ranked 13th. They drew a No. 7 seed and had to play on the road in the first two rounds. The school made its first semifinals appearance last year, losing to West Albany 4-1 after winning the Mid-Willamette title.
Pendleton, the state tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, flirted with the top ranking in Class 5A for most of the second half of the season. With last year’s experience to fall back on and the girls expecting to play games into June this year, coach Cary said he anticipates a much smoother game than the stomach-churner versus West Albany.
The Bucks booted balls throughout that game on defense, committing six errors and allowing five unearned runs.
“I truly feel like we’re more relaxed,” Cary said. “Last year, it was the first time. We showed in our faces and the way we played that we felt the pressure. Experience will be a huge advantage here, just knowing how to handle the whole situation.”
Contact AJ Mazzolini at email@example.com or at 541-966-0839.