The Lady Lions will turn up the heat in the preseason, with hopes that a red-hot start will catapult them into prominance
It didn't take long for St. Helens softball head coach Jeff Edwards to give his key to success this season.
Pitching, he said, pointing to junior standout Mariah Mulcahy without a moment's hesitation. Pitching, and we've got one.
Mulcahy has been a standout on the team for the last two seasons, and has been named the Northwest Oregon Conference Pitcher of the Year for her efforts. She's the early highlight on a star-studded roster that will see seven players return with all-league honors from last season's 20-5 campaign. The year ended with a disheartening 3-1 loss at home in the first round of the playoffs in a drizzle.
Shouldn't have played it, said Edwards. We had a couple of errors and (it was) game over.
Still, hanging with an opponent like Hermiston – or Sandy and Glencoe, for that matter – isn't an easy task. The Pioneers beat St. Helens twice in NWOC play, downing the Lions 2-0 and 2-1 to win the league. They followed up their league performance with a state title, and now that softball season is just a few days away, Sandy has started to crow once again.
They're already tweeting that they've got the repeat down, and the player of the year pitcher, said Edwards. They've got the first-team catcher, they have one of the best outfielders in the league and they've got the coach of the year. We need to beat them a couple of times to make them a rival, but quite frankly, I don't think either team cares for each other very much.
Sandy won't be the only hurdle. They'll have West Albany in the opening game on Monday, March 17, and welcome Canby, a powerhouse from Class 6A, on March 18. Then they face Class 6A runner-up Glencoe on Friday before leaving to take part in the North Medford Spring Break Invitational. The Lions will see Tualatin from the Pacific conference as part of that tournament, and will close off the regular season with five massive and dangerous 6A schools, including Jesuit in the final preseason game.
The Lions' strategy is twofold. They want to get valuable experience against some of the best programs in the state, but there's another issue at stake.
Back in the day, before the power rankings, the deal was that you'd go schedule three tough teams, then you'd get some cupcakes and then you'd schedule some medium teams because your record counts, but now it's all about power rankings, said Edwards. In our league, when we beat Parkrose and Milwaukie by 10, we lose points in the power rankings because we have a top-heavy league and a couple of weak teams.
Beating the strong teams like Sandy, Liberty and Wilsonville will give the Lions a bump, but beating Parkrose and Milwaukie – no matter the score – can drag down a team with a high ranking. To balance out the low spots in their league schedule, Edwards has made a bold move: gambling that his team has the guts to knock off the state's perennial powerhouses.
We're taking on the toughest schedule we possibly can to try to get ahead of the curve when we get in to league, said Edwards. We know that we'll take a couple of hits from a couple teams.
Edwards has reason to believe in his team. In fact, it's not exactly a new thing for him, as he's been coaching many of the players since they were in the second grade.
I think this group here, I started a lot of them when they were seven or eight years old, and I've had them all the way through, he said, casting a knowing glance at the field where his players were hard at work during practice. We won state when they were 10 and they played tournament ball. Then, after they were 12-years-old, 11-years-old, they kind of branched off and went over the mountain. Some played with the Oregon Thunder, some with the Hillsboro Thunder. Some with the Beaverton Blaze and different groups. I'm getting them back, but I've known them and I started them very young.
The vast experience of the team's members, which includes highlights of summer play in California, a national championship visit to Midland, Texas, and a game in Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, has given the squad a strong foundation. Many of the players have been together since their impressionable grade school years, and have been honing their skills ever since.
Defense and excellent pitching will be the team's strongest points, just as they were last season. Mulcahy shut out seven of her 14 opponents down the stretch, and now that she's completely healthy, teams will have a hard time scoring on the Lions.
The difficulty, though, will be scoring themselves. Last season, when St. Helens fell in their handful of games, it was an inability to get hits that crippled the team. That is a concern this season for Edwards, but he has faith in the pitching staff and the team's defense should they be called upon to carry St. Helens when the bats aren't swinging.
Edwards was hesitant to comment on any sort of starting lineup, but made it clear the best players will see time on the field, regardless of their past successes. The Lions won't rest on their laurels, instead bravely stepping into the arena with giants - like Jesuit who has the money and talent pool to knock St. Helens out of the park – with one goal in mind: battle for positioning ahead of the post season, and potential for a state championship.