Paul Cooley calls the game “21 Outs” and he’s betting that it will improve the house odds.
The West Valley softball coach hits fungoes at his defensive alignment, and the Eagles must record 21 outs without making an error. On this day, the team gets to 18, but busts with a booted ground ball.
“I don’t make it easy for them,” the coach said. “I’ll hit fly balls into the gap that they have to run down – tough plays.”
It’s a re-emphasis on defense for a team that finished third in last year’s state Class 2A state softball tournament and expected to have placed higher.
“I thought we were one of the two best teams in the state last year,” Cooley said. “I thought it would be us and W.F. West in the championship game. West made it that far, we lost 2-1 in the second round.”
That loss still stings.
The Eagles fell behind, 2-1 in the first inning on an error, and watched their best chance at a rally thwarted by a bad call.
With runners on first and second, Cassie Finn belted a powerful drive to center field.
“Their center fielder actually climbed the chain-link fence and reached over,” the coach said. “She couldn’t catch the ball, but she was able to bat it back onto the field and then she caught the ball.”
Breaking with three-umpire protocol, the same umpire that ruled on the catch at the fence, turned and ruled that speedy Natalie Noble left second base early and called her out for an inning-ending double play.
“He saw her rounding third and figured there was no way she could get that far without leaving early,” Cooley said. “I told him no, she’d tagged up and was my fastest player, but he insisted she had to leave early.”
Instead of being tied, 2-2, with a runner on base and the heart of the West Valley batting order coming up, the Eagles took the loss, battled back and settled for a third-place trophy.
A handful of umpires from games that had already finished were in the stands watching, and they all let the ump know he’d missed the call.
“We got the very same umpire for the third-place game and he told me before the game that he knew it wouldn’t help, but that he was wrong,” Cooley said.
Last year the Eagles had the two top pitchers in the Great Northern League, seniors Kelli Peckham and Brooklyn Robinson. Peckham pitched the lion’s share of the innings while allowing opponents one run every four-and-a-half games while Robinson, who boasted an ERA of 1.0, was the league’s Most Valuable Player and the everyday center fielder.
The good news is that the rest of last year’s squad returns. The bad news is that the team must groom some new hurlers.
“That’s why we have to put more emphasis on our defense,” Cooley explains. “Last year we had to rely on our defense to make, maybe four, five or six plays in a seven-inning game. Our pitching took care of the rest. This year, we’re going to have to make 10, 11 or 12 plays. Now, we have a pretty solid defense, but is it enough?
“We’re going to have to outscore teams.”
The Eagles have the offense to do that. Finn already has belted four home runs, the coach said.
Meanwhile, junior catcher Katelyn Sage is a young pitching staff’s best friend behind the plate – an outstanding defensive backstop who is equally good calling pitches.
“I’ve always called pitches, but last year Katelyn called games for Kelli and Brooklyn,” Cooley said. “We talked at the beginning of the season and by just a couple games into the season, she was calling a perfect game.”
The league season will be a battle, Cooley predicted, adding that the return of Colville to the GNL will tip the balance of power.
“This is one of Colville’s really good years and they’re going to be the class of the league,” he said. “Deer Park is kind of a surprise and East Valley is good, as always.
“Right now, we’re just looking to get into the playoffs. After that anything can happen.”