HEPPNER — The payoffs are obvious now — a 0.44 season-long ERA and Heppner’s first state softball championship — but some of the legwork to get there had Baily Bennett a little skeptical.
In the offseason, following a Special District 5 Pitcher of the Year sophomore season, Bennett felt like she needed to up her pitching game. While attending softball pitching clinics, the Mustang tried out several off-the-beaten-path tricks for improvement — the old wives’ remedy equivalent for hurling a softball.
She threw pitches while standing on one leg and others while blindfolded.
“It was all really difficult, just hard to know what I even needed to do,” said Bennett, who finished her junior year at Heppner this week.
“I hoped to God she wasn’t going to just unleash one and hit me,” Collins said, laughing at the set up. “I was just hoping I was going to be able to keep it in front of me.”
But instead of sending rogue softballs careening around the field, Bennett’s pitches were straight on target. Some high, some low, but the softballs always got to where they needed to be.
The unusual tactic helped implant a ritualistic repetition in Bennett’s delivery. With each windup a mirror image of the last, she became comfortable enough to literally hit her marks with eyes closed.
That laser-precise accuracy was the biggest difference between her sophomore strong season and the greatness of junior year, a season resume that included SD5 Player of the Year honors, a likely spot on the Class 2A/1A All-State first team and now the East Oregonian’s softball Player of the Year title.
With added balance, accuracy and strength, Bennett rolled out unreal numbers. To go with her laughably low ERA and .180 batting average against, Bennett also struck out 193 batters in 174 innings. She threw all but two of Heppner’s innings in the circle, a sure sign that the Mustangs would not have finished the season where they did without Bennett’s whirlwind of a right arm. She pulled every decision for the team this year, posting a 23-4 record.
Bennett threw one of her best games in the clutch, shutting down Glendale in the state championship for a 4-2 victory. She held the Pirates to four hits and two runs after they had averaged 15.6 runs per game this season.
“She is a competitor and sports are really her No. 1 priority,” said Heppner softball coach Petra Payne, who has coached Bennett all three years of her high school career on the varsity team. “She’s doing her job in the circle and carrying a lot of weight on her shoulders there. She holds us all up there as best she can.”
She’s the kind of competitor who plays whatever sport she can year round, already competing in summer volleyball games in Irrigon this week, just five days after wrapping the softball season. She’s the kind of competitor who fell in love with softball at an early age and wanted to play so badly that she joined her brother’s baseball team for lack of a better option in elementary school.
“I think some of the other players weren’t too happy about it,” she mused.
And though she’s grown into one of the fiercest pitchers in the state at any level, Bennett also swung the kind of bat that would land a position player on the top all-state squad. The pitching ace hit 10 home runs to go with 37 RBIs and 35 runs this season. She batted for a .413 average — hitting .700 during four postseason games despite being pitched around for five walks by opponents who had clearly read the scouting report.
With the dramatic leap in domination between years No. 2 and No. 3 of high school ball, her coach said her mind is already racing at the possibilities for next year’s team.
“I don’t want to put a cap on what she can do because if she keeps working on it I know she can improve, improve, improve,” Payne said. “She’ll get it all figured out. She’s a joy to work with because of that.”
After quartering her already-impressive 1.91 sophomore-year ERA, Bennett isn’t focused on whittling down her runs allowed or boosting her strikeouts much. It’s a collective goal that she wants to hit next.
Or perhaps hit again.
“I think we can go back to the championship,” Bennett said. “We’re losing two outstanding seniors, but even losing those two I think we can still push ourselves to get even better.”
Contact AJ Mazzolini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839.