If West Valley coach Steve Kent saved the toilet paper from all those times his players decorated his house following a Frontier League softball championship, he’d never have to purchase a roll again.
And Kent is quick to point out why his Eagles have garnered eight league titles, never finished lower than second, and made 11 state appearances in the last 13 years.
“There have been some incredible players come through here,” he said.
“I know winning begets winning. But if you don’t have the players, you’re not a coaching genius.”
WV has owned Frontier League softball Most Valuable Player awards, beginning when Peggy (Almquist) Wells, who was Greater Spokane League MVP the previous year, and Adetta (Harder) Willey, who shared the award back in 1985.
All told, over 13 years, nine WV girls have won 10 MVP awards, including Darcy Sohns as a junior last year.
Wells and Willey, along with fellow three-year starters Wendy Dougherty and Wendy Bagley, helped West Valley to second place in the State AA slow pitch tournament. They began a tradition whose length has mystified even their coach.
“I told the girls several years ago that when I became softball coach I didn’t know if it was pumped, stitched or stuffed,” said Kent. “I’m a football coach.”
The Eagles finished second in state one other time and in the final six twice, including last year.
The only seasons the Eagles haven’t been to state were 1991 and ‘93. Since 1985 they have won 75 percent of the time. Included is this year’s current 20-3 mark.
Kent took the softball position in order to get a teaching job 18 years ago, figuring he’d stick with it for a couple of years.
Beginning with slow pitch in the GSL in 1980, he’s stayed through softball’s evolution to fast pitch and has scarcely missed a playoff beat while learning along with and from his players.
“We had played for so many years,” said Willey, “and the majority of us played together as youngsters. We taught him a lot.”
Indeed, if there’s a common thread to West Valley’s success story, it is that the girls grew up in softball- and baseball-playing families. Willey’s father, Hank Harder, is a Spokane Metro Hall of Fame softball player.
Said Wells, “Something there rubs off. I bet it’s being in a competitive atmosphere.”
Her half-brother Mike bought her a mitt for $3 at a garage sale when she was in grade school, so that he could pitch to her. She played baseball on a team with her brother Alan before she was old enough to play softball.
Three recent vintage MVPs, Sohns and the Palmer sisters, Tanya and Peggy, have parents who were also active in softball and who have given Kent input into the game.
“If you don’t have parental involvement you don’t have a program,” said Kent. “My philosophy is that everybody has opinions. If I can learn, I listen.”
Joe Palmer provided him with a defense against slap hitting. Rick Sohns currently assists the Eagles and taught him about pitching. Professional bowler Gary Mage, whose daughter Lori was MVP in 1991, was Kent’s biggest supporter for his demanding coaching style.
Kent, at least in his early years, brought a fiery, disciplined, no nonsense temperament to the game.
“I was hard-nosed and demonstrative,” admitted Kent. “Some people didn’t like me.”
His players thrived on it, although they say that he has mellowed.
“He’s a softie, now,” said Wells.
“When we played,” said Tanya Palmer, “We got our butts chewed. The other day a girl struck out and he said, ‘let’s just learn from this.’ Our eyes got huge.”
Even Sohns admitted he’s gotten easier since she arrived as a freshman and pitched the Eagles to a four-year record of 84-18 and four state appearances.
She’s also a reason Kent embraced fast pitch after initially opposing the change because of his years of slow pitch success.
WV girls petitioned to have softball and Kent was hired to lead them in 1980. That first year, the Eagles were 2-22.
“We had pretty good players and pretty nice kids, but it was like family reunion softball,” said Kent. “Talk about starting from scratch and I’m learning right along with them.”
Things began to improve with the arrival of his four sophomores who remain among the school’s career hitting leaders.
From 1988 on, the league MVP has come from West Valley practically every year. Donnette Hickman led the Eagles to second in state that season. Wendy Bonnett won in 1989 and ‘90. Mage won in 1991 and Melissa Spacek in 1992, the first year for fast pitch in league.
Tanya Palmer won in 1993 and holds the distinction of playing on the only two teams who didn’t qualify for state.
“That would be me,” she said.
She also played both softball disciplines.
“It was neat to show we could go from slow pitch to fast pitch and let everyone know WV still could play some ball,” she said.
Her sister Peggy won in 1995 and Sohns won last year.
“They are just scratching the surface,” said Kent. “The MVPs just exemplify the type of kids we get.”
He recalled a doubleheader in Colville on a day in which one of his star players, Monica Messinger, had to take a mathematics placement test in Spokane two hours before the game.
“Her dad knows a guy with an airplane and they flew up there,” he said. “The field is by the airport. We’re warming up and it’s almost 11 a.m. Monica jumps out in full uniform, jumps a fence and runs across the jayvee field toward us. Colville players’ jaws dropped. The game was over.”
That, said Kent, is the kind of players he’s been lucky enough to coach and why West Valley has been so successful.
“It’s been amazing,” he said.
It’s also why at this time every year he can’t sleep and is a nervous wreck, wondering what night the players are coming to toilet paper his house.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
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