HEPPNER — Fifteen years into the Heppner softball program’s existence, the Mustangs won their first state championship. Seven months later, the first Mustang signed a letter of intent for a major scholarship to play collegiately.
Thursday at the Heppner High library, pitcher Baily Bennett signed her letter to join the Treasure Valley Community College softball team for the 2014 season. Following graduation this spring, the Heppner senior will enroll at TVCC’s Ontario campus.
Bennett led the Mustangs to the Class 2A/1A state softball title last June when her team knocked off Glendale 4-2 at Oregon State University’s Softball Complex in Corvallis. Bennett pitched a complete game in the win to finish the season with a 23-4 record, 193 strikeouts and a 0.44 ERA over 174 innings pitched.
Phone calls, letters and college coaches were next. Power pitchers with the same pop at the plate — Bennett smacked 10 home runs and hit for a .413 average last season as well — are in high demand at the college level.
“It made me think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is actually happening,’ ” Bennett told the EO on Wednesday. “I’ve always wanted to play college softball. (The recruiting) made me realize I’m not as young as I once was. It’s happening now.”
Bennett spoke with four-year institutes like Oregon State — after she’d gotten a taste of their facilities in the 2012 title game — but she was looking for something different.
At least for now.
“I think the biggest part of making my decision was that I wanted to go somewhere and get some playing time right away,” Bennett said. “And I wanted to get the feel of college before I go out to a four-year school.”
Treasure Valley meets those demands. Ontario was small enough to have a home-town feel to it — like Bennett’s Heppner — and far enough away to allow Bennett some independence while staying in Oregon.
And the TVCC coaches were very interested. Head coach Gordy Ogawa attended softball games in Heppner and even dropped by the Mustangs’ girls’ basketball contest in John Day earlier this month when Bennett and the team played Grant Union.
The signing and subsequent tuition waiver mark a huge step for the Heppner program. Others have left Heppner to play collegiately — most recently last year’s graduate Cassi Day, who will play at South Mountain Community College near Phoenix, Ariz., this spring — but none have garnered the attention of Bennett, who still has a senior season of softball to play in Heppner.
“I’m so proud of her. She’s worked very hard and deserves a chance,” Heppner softball coach Petra Payne said. “(Bennett’s signing) obviously helps the whole program. The young girls can see, if I work hard enough that’s a real possibility.”
The Treasure Valley Chukars were third in the NWAACC East last season with a 28-20 record before being eliminated by eventual NWAACC champions Clackamas in the postseason.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at email@example.com or 541-966-0839.