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Forest Grove High School's state champion softball team is headed for the Hall of Fame

NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO - Members of the 2007 state championship softball team pose for a photo with the trophy following their win over Central Catholic.Those who bleed maroon and gold will forever remember Leah Van Domelen catching that soft pop-up in the bottom of the eighth inning in Corvallis.

That's how the News-Times introduced the Viking state softball championship in its 2007 Year In Review, and this is how then-Principal John O'Neill summed up the effort by the first state championship team in Forest Grove High School history.

"They always persevere. When you think they are down, they come right back and get it done," said O'Neill.

And it's that perseverance — coupled with the innate ability of a mixture of youthful and veteran leadership by which then-head coach Ole Evenson will always remember his team — that shocked the Oregon prep world, turning a 12-loss season and league No. 3 seed into the school's first-ever state title.

"Every single kid contributed," said Evenson. "It was amazing to watch. It was truly great to see what people can accomplish when they work together and put the individual stuff aside."

Katie Brosig, who was a freshman shortstop on the team in 2007 and is now the varsity softball coach at FGHS, said there was almost something magical about the experience that even at the time one could sense.

"In the first playoff game we were like, 'we can win this," said Brosig. "Then after we won a couple we were like, 'we can't lose this.' It became an impossibility that we could lose. It felt like it was meant to be."

It didn't start that way.

NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO - Forest Grove pitcher Emma Gronseth leaps into the arms of teammate Nikki Kemper after recording the final out of the 6A state championship game against Central Catholic in 2007.Evenson was in his first year as the varsity coach at the high school and had a talented group of incoming freshmen he'd coached throughout their youth experience. Because he also had a capable group of returning players, Evenson and his assistants were burdened with the task of identifying a list of starters — without concern for age or experience.

"We had a lot of young kids and some older kids who were real good players, so we had some real tight battles for starting positions," said the coach. "So as a coaching staff we decided we were going to make the kids earn their job every day."

That didn't go over well early on, and the results bore that out. The team struggled to find its identity and became mired in the middle of the Pacific Conference pack. Evenson recognized the issues at hand but also realized it was ultimately the players who'd have to make a decision to rectify it.

"There seemed to be a lot of internal strife on the team, but centerfielder Sarah Rivera did a really good job of keeping the kids focused on 'us versus them'," Evenson said. "A big turning point was when we decided that rather than fight with each other, we were going to take on the rest of the world. And that was a lot of Sarah's doing."

Brosig agreed with Evenson's assessment and reiterated Rivera's influence on the team.

"We had a lot of talks throughout the year about being disconnected and not there for each other," Brosig said. "Then finally toward the end of the season we said 'this is ridiculous' and we all need to just go out and do what we do because we have the talent. And Sarah was a big part of that."

Team maturity and unity

And from that point on, things changed.

The Vikings won a game against Canby in the second-to-last regular season contest of the year and Evenson noticed a difference. He saw the maturity and team unity that had been lacking both on and off of the field, and recognized how it translated in the way they were playing.

"I told my assistants, 'we're playing really good softball right now,'" said the coach prior to their first playoff game.

Forest Grove got comeback wins over Oregon City, Aloha and Westview en route to the championship game versus Central Catholic, and along the way dubbed themselves the "comeback kids" as a result of their late-game postseason heroics.

Evenson remembers a specific play against Aloha that summed up the experience and in hindsight set the stage for what was to come.

The Vikings trailed the Warriors 2-0 late in the game and, with the bases loaded, an Aloha hitter smacked a laser to right centerfield that Evenson thought was headed for the gap. From nowhere, Rivera made the catch and doubled up the runner at second to end the inning and keep Forest Grove's hopes alive.

"As soon as that ball was hit, I was like, 'that's three runs,'" Evenson said. "But out of nowhere Sarah makes the catch and comes off the field and is like, 'were the comeback kids!' And we scored five runs and beat them 5-2."

The dream continued.

A few days later, Forest Grove defeated David Douglas in the quarterfinals, then hosted Westview and standout Wildcat pitcher Dylan Mizer. After falling behind 1-0 on a solo homerun to start the second inning, the Viks responded with three runs in the sixth and held on in the seventh to punch their ticket to the championship game in Corvallis, something that to this day brings Evenson to tears.

NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO - Forest Grove catcher Nikki Kemper dumps a bucket of ice water on head coach Ole Evenson following their semifinal win over Westview."Before that game I told the kids — because Westview was a juggernaut with an outstanding pitcher — regardless of what happens in this game, the only thing you should be worried about is that years from now you can look back on this and say I did everything I could to help my teammates win this game," said a choked-up Evenson. "And Lindsay Rennie (Forest Grove's freshman third baseman) looked up and said, 'I feel like I'm in a movie, coach.' And that's the feeling we had. It was just magical."

'It was so surreal'

Four days later the Vikings again fell behind, this time to No. 7-ranked Central Catholic, 1-0 through three innings. But Forest Grove tied the game in the fourth, and then — like throughout the postseason — took the lead in the eighth on an Emma Gronseth two-out RBI single that scored Nikki Kemper. The Viks then tacked on three more on a Rennie RBI double, a Brosig run-scoring single and a Central Catholic error on a Crystal Bond fly to right, giving them the necessary cushion and setting the table for Van Domelen's final out.

"On that last play when they popped it up to Leah, I remember thinking 'this is it,'" Brosig said. "Then she caught it and we celebrated and it was so surreal."

Now, looking back, both the former and current Viking head coaches view the championship experience — now a decade old — both joyfully and as a means of teaching the power of teamwork. Evenson, who with his brothers runs Old Trapper Smoked Products in Forest Grove, speaks to the lessons learned during the 2007 season as tools to running a small business. And Brosig, who later was part of a team that won a national championship her freshman season at Linfield, tries to teach her current players the value of relationships as a means to success on the field.

"Because the relationships part was such a stress on us that year, I really focus on that as a coach," Brosig said. "Maintaining a good relationship and the importance of accepting your role is so important, and I stress that to my girls."

But more than anything, both take pride in the accomplishment and acknowledge it's something they'll not soon forget.

"I'll remember this for the rest of my life," said Evenson. "I was a part of a lot of losing seasons in football and baseball and watched a lot of struggles, so to do what we did meant so much. Hopefully it's not the only time Forest Grove wins a state championship, but so far it still is — and that's pretty special."

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