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Power player: On a Whitworth softball team that strives for solid line drives, Maddy Thomas has thrived as a home run hitter

UPDATED: Wed., April 20, 2022

By Jason Shoot The Spokesman-Review

Maddy Thomas breaks the game.

“We’re not a home run-hitting team,” Whitworth softball coach Bob Castle said. “That’s not what our (modus operandi) is. We want solid line drives. I scream, ‘Middle-oppo!’ all the time. We want really good swings.

“Then (Thomas) steps in and gives us energy by smashing balls out at the right time nearly every time. It’s that little piece of a game that coaches love to have. We can get that big swing and score two, three runs at one time. As a coach, you do get in a small-ball mindset – how do we move a runner over – and it’s nice not having to lay down a bunt all the time.”

A senior, Thomas is nearing the end of a prolific Pirates career featuring school records in career home runs (39), career slugging percentage (.726) and homers in a single season (14 in 2021). She’s three runs batted in shy of the Pirates’ career record of 128.

“I’m in disbelief what I’ve been able to do with this team,” Thomas said.

Thomas leads the fourth-seeded Pirates (25-15) into a first-round matchup with Northwest Conference regular-season champion Linfield (33-7) in the NWC Tournament on Friday at 4 p.m. in McMinnville, Oregon.

A 21-year-old senior who formerly played high school ball at DeSales in Walla Walla, Thomas arrived at Whitworth and immediately began putting up staggering numbers.

She clubbed 12 home runs in 40 starts as a freshman in the spring of 2019, compiling a .286 batting average and 29 RBIs.

“They told me I could be an impact player from Day One, and that sold me,” Thomas said, referring to former coach Cristal Brown. Castle was an assistant on Brown’s staff from 2015-18 and returned after one year away – Thomas’ freshman season – to take over as head coach in the fall of 2019.

“I put a ton of pressure on her in her sophomore year,” Castle said. “Going into her junior year, I apologized to her for doing that, and I said I wouldn’t do that anymore. All I did was continue to provide more pressure. She is someone who has the ability to handle that, to be able to take it and word it in a way the team can understand.

“Sometimes a coach may not have the right words at the right time. You’re looking for somebody who can provide effort, and she goes out and puts it on display. You can’t do anything but listen and respect her for what she has done, and that’s what this team does.”

Thomas speaks with passion about the role she plays on the team beyond the lineup card. There is a particular vigor in her voice when she describes the work she puts in year-round to improve as a middle-of-the-order cornerstone.

“I’m a nerd when it comes to weightlifting and health science and kinesiology and physiology and proper form and conditioning, and I train with that same intensity,” she said. “During the offseason when I practice, I think of the Linfield games and the George Fox games and the games I haven’t performed. The more I can revisit those situations, the less they will surprise me later in the season.

“The only person who is going to make me better is myself. If I’m willing to stay late in the summer, spend hours throwing against a brick wall solo, practice fundamentals off a tee, it’s going to help me in big moments when I’ve got eyes on me and the team is rooting for me to have a big swing.”

Thomas has worked through the challenge of transitioning from catcher to a full-time role as a designated hitter when conference play began. Viewing the game exclusively from the dugout, Thomas acknowledged the considerable difference in how she engages the game. Still, she is batting .295 with 10 home runs and 41 RBIs in 39 starts this season.

“Some things from this season have forced me to have a more mature mindset getting moved to DH and not being able to catch so much,” she said. “I had to be a little more real with my career here and this whole purpose. When you were asking about leaving it all out there, I’ve been leaving it all out there since I showed up out here.”

It’s one thing to have natural power in a swing, but it’s another to be able to tap into it with consistent, positive results. Thomas’ freshman season included prodigious power numbers, but she struck out 27 times that season and drew just 11 walks. She narrowed that ratio over the next two seasons, and this year she flipped it with 27 walks against 18 strikeouts.

“That was her and I getting together after her sophomore year,” Castle said of the effort to improve her plate discipline. “I flat-out told her that if she wanted to be considered among the best in the conference, something needs to change. For the team to be successful and more consistent, we needed that to change.

“… She is being very intentional with making them pitch to her. This is not a league where people are intentionally walking either, but she’s done a good job being more particular and focusing on what she wants to drive.”

Her presence gives the Pirates better than a puncher’s chance against Linfield. The Wildcats are led by pitcher Tayah Kelley, who has been tabbed the conference’s pitcher of the week six times. She is 20-3 in 25 appearances in the circle, including 18 complete games, and leads the NWC with 201 strikeouts and a 1.16 ERA.

“You get to this stage of the season and a lot of emotions are going into the season being up in the air,” Thomas said. “One of our assistant coaches said, ‘The postseason is when the magic happens.’ You can get caught up in it could be the last game, could be whatever.

“The biggest thing we can do for ourselves is take the emotion out of it and be good with our preparation, let the game build momentum and not let ourselves make the moment too big. It’s still just a 21-out game and a yellow softball.”

Thomas often speaks like a coach, and she doesn’t deny the interest in pursuing that in the future.

“I think I would fit well in a coaching role,” she said. “But I want to get out and do some stuff and see some things in life. But I do have some decent tools to be able to help a kid get better.”

Castle admitted he’s already pitched his player on a role as an assistant.

“She is sincerely someone who can do anything she puts her mind to,” Castle said. “When I ask her to return for coaching, she laughs at me. I think emotionally she might need a break, but I will keep making that call. … With a leader you always ask two questions: Where are they taking me and do I trust them? You can ask the other 21 players on this team, and they believe in where Maddy takes them, and they know they can trust her.”

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