Core group of seniors return to the field this spring

by: SANDY POST: PARKER LEE - Sandy pitcher Sammie Byron, middle, leads teammates through stretching drills during practice last week.When the Sandy softball team took the field for the season’s first practice last week, all eyes were immediately drawn to the bold words on the new, glossy banner hanging prominently on the center field fence:

2013 5A State Champions.

Those few words are a source of great pride for the players who were a part of that historic team, but the Pioneers are not about to let themselves get cocky. Sandy knows the accolades that make it so intimidating also make it the biggest target in the state.

“I think the team feels a little overwhelmed right now,” Sandy coach Kellie Wilkerson said. “I think we are going to overcome that, it is just a matter of having everybody mesh. The team this year is a lot different than last year, so it is critical for everyone to come together.”

The Pioneers shocked a lot of people last season with the way they plowed through the season. After losing the season opener in extra innings to Hood River Valley, Sandy rolled off 27 straight wins on its way to the school’s first-ever softball state title.

There will be no flying under the radar this year.

Sandy knows that to pull off an unprecedented repeat it will have to playing its best softball by the end of the season. To that end, the Pioneers have compiled a murderers’ row of non-conference opponents in the preseason.

“We wanted to play the best,” Wilkerson said. “It is just going to make us better and stronger.”

Sandy opens the season with Hood River, the one team it lost to last season. Later, the Pioneers face Pendleton which was ranked No. 1 for most of last season. Barlow, Tualitan and Central Catholic are also on the docket for Sandy. All three finished the 2013 year in the top eight of the Class 6A rankings. Finally, Sandy plays Camas, Wash. which came within one run of winning the state title in Washington’s highest classification.

If any team is equipped to handle such a daunting buzz saw of opponents, it might be this Sandy squad.

Headlining the Pioneers is pitcher Sammie Byron who was simply brilliant last season as a junior. Byron finished the 2013 campaign with an earned run average of 0.65 as she logged 157.2 innings. She recorded 141 strikeouts and opponents only batted .150 against her.

Byron threw two no-hitters, one of which was a perfect game against Milwaukie. She tossed 12 shutouts in all, including a masterpiece in the state championship game against Hermiston. Byron was dubbed 5A pitcher of the year and Softball West Magazine named her on its high school all-American honorable-mention list.

Byron has signed with Mt. Hood Community College where she will play in 2015. In the meantime, she is still a Pioneer and gives Sandy an excellent chance to win every time she takes the pitchers’ circle.

The Pioneers also welcome back Byron’s battery mate, catcher Rachel Rutledge. Rutledge hit cleanup for Sandy last season, and she earned that spot in the lineup. She was third on the team in runs batted in with 24 and extra-base hits with 11. Rutledge had a batting average of .450 and struck out just five times in 91 plate appearances.

Behind the plate, Rutledge is a brick wall. She is better than any other catcher in the state at blocking balls in the dirt, and she frames borderline pitches just as well. Rutledge, a Mt. Hood signee herself, will be huge from a leadership standpoint this year. She was an all-state first teamer last season and could easily be so again.

Sandy’s third key returner is outfielder Molly Nutt. Nutt is another member of last season’s all-state first team, and she was well-deserving. She is one of the most versatile leadoff hitters in any classification and always keeps pitchers guessing. She is a switch hitter and can sit back and drive the ball from either side of the plate, but she can also slap from the left side with great success. With an astounding batting average of .554, she led the team last year.

Nutt is the faster runner Sandy has which enabled her to steal 16 bases last year. She played right field last season, but will likely move over and play center field as a junior this year.

With three first team all-state returners on the roster, Sandy is automatically one of the favorites to return to the state championship game. At the same time, the Pioneers understand that every other team in the state is going to do everything possible to keep that from happening.

“Our expectation is the same, and we have the team to do it, but they are going to realize that they are going to have to work for it,” Wilkerson said. “Nothing is ever just handed out, and they have a big, old target on their back now. But we are ready. They understand you can still win with a target on your back.”

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