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Sports >  High school sports

Softball coach Paul Cooley, who will retire this year, says this year’s team may be best all-around he’s ever had

There is a small box situated near third base on a softball diamond, usually reserved for the head coach.

It’s where the coach calls for the bunt and the hit-and-run and shouts encouragement at the player in the batter’s box.

Paul Cooley has spent the best part of a lifetime working in that box.

He coached Rogers High into a regular state tournament fastpitch softball program, then did the same thing with Gonzaga Prep.

For more than a dozen years, Cooley has coached the fastpitch program at West Valley, taking the Eagles to a program-best third-place finish in 2012.

Cooley announced that this year would be his final season as a coach – the joys and demands of being a grandfather are tugging him away from the dugout.

“I’m ready to be done as a head coach running a program,” he said. “But I’m not sure I want to be done with softball. I haven’t decided, but I can see myself signing on somewhere as an assistant coach and helping out.”

The coach is far from finished just yet, however.

“I think this year’s team may be the best all-around team I’ve ever had,” he said. “We hit the ball really well. We’re an above-average defensive team. And we have the pitching you need.”

Heading into Friday’s doubleheader with East Valley, Cooley and his Eagles are 12-2 after sweeping Pullman (winning 20-2 and 14-1) and Clarkston (18-2, 27-14).

The Eagles have lost just one Great Northern League game so far, dropping a 9-4 decision to Cheney in a game where West Valley was without two starters and lost a third to a second-inning injury.

Thus far, WV has scored in double figures 11 times. In the first game of the doubleheader sweep of the Bantams, the Eagles scored seven runs in the first inning and six players had multiple-hit games, with Jillian Taylor slamming a home run.

“If you can hit and if you can play defense, you’re going to be in most games,” he said. “But they call this game ‘fastpitch’ for a reason. If you want to win, you have to have pitching.”

The Eagles have had exceptional pitching over the years. Kelli Peckham powered the team to its best state finish. Before her, Rachel Meagley had the Eagles battling through the postseason before graduating after the 2008 season.

This year, the center circle belongs to India Wells.

“Last year, as a sophomore, India showed flashes of being really dominant, but she could be a little tentative at times,” the coach explained. “This year, she’s been working with Rachel Meagley and that has really helped her improve.”

In her last two outings Wells has needed to throw just six innings total. Her teammates took advantage of the 15-run rule to end her starts against the Bantams, and before that Pullman, after three innings. Against Clarkston Wells gave up just two hits, one more than she allowed the Greyhounds.

Beginning with the doubleheader with the Knights, just six games remain in the GNL regular season, including a doubleheader with the Blackhawks.

West Valley may hold its rivalry games with East Valley, but when it comes to the diamond, the Eagles and Blackhawks have forged a powerful rivalry.

“The level of consistency in our league hasn’t really been there,” Cooley said. “Year in and year out, our best games are with Cheney.

“The year we placed third at state we played Cheney in the regular season, we played them again at districts, we had to play them twice in regionals because they came back through the loser’s bracket, and who do you think we had to play at state? We had to beat them eight times that year. It got to the point where we wanted to play anyone else.”

Cooley leaves an enviable program for whoever comes aboard next year.

He has worked hard to encourage players from Centennial Middle School to transition from the fall fastpitch season to the high school’s spring program – a task easier said than done.

“With the change to spring we lose kids to other sports,” he said. “We lose some to golf and tennis, some to track. And some kids are just tired after playing sports in the fall and winter and are just ready for some time off.”

By putting on a youth clinic, Cooley and his assistant coaches have been able to identify young players with promise and track them through summer season and their middle school career.

And he has encouraged his varsity players to get plenty of experience through the summers.

Last summer, he said, almost every Eagle played on a traveling team.

“That’s a bonus because those teams are going to a lot of prestigious tournaments,” he said. “And really, if you want to play college softball, you need to play in those tournaments. Anymore, that’s where you’re going to be seen by a college coach.”

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