Big dreams for Wa-Hi softball

Wa-Hi's softball team finished an undefeated regular season ranked No. 1 in state, No. 44 in the country according on ESPN Rise, and begins its march toward the state championship with a district play

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The Wa-Hi softball team, gathered around coach Jerry Humphreys, is framed through a diamond in the backstop fence following Wednesday's practice at Murr Field. The Blue Devils completed an undefeated regular season and open postseason play with a 5 p.m. game against Pasco tonight at Murr.

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Hands full of softballs, awards and expectations, Wa-Hi softball coach Jerry Humphries moves the Blue Devils into a 5 p.m. Thursday district playoff game with Pasco, and the post-season, one game at a time.

WALLA WALLA - If the Wa-Hi Blue Devils had a point to prove, they've proved it.

The softball team has an undefeated record, with many of the games ending early with the Blue Devils ahead by at least 10 runs.

That 17-0 record secured the Blue Devils their fourth consecutive Cascade Division championship, no small accomplishment in a talent-stacked Big Nine.

After a third-place finish at state in 2009, they've got higher aims this year - and the people who decide where teams go agree with them, as they're currently ranked No. 1 in the state.

And they're No. 44 in the country, according to ESPN Rise, a high school sports website - the only ranked team from Washington, and one of only two Northwest teams.

Eight Blue Devil girls were selected all-conference, with two taking individual honors.

Any point these girls had to prove has been slammed out of the park.

And they're probably the ones slamming it, since Wa-Hi batters are among the few who can get hits off Hope Klicker.

Klicker, a junior, was selected most valuable player for the Columbia Basin Big Nine and to first team all-league.

Her catcher, senior Vicki Reardon, was selected offensive player of the year and first team all-league.

And a strong team is behind both of them.

"We expect it of ourselves," said senior shortstop Alicia Baker. "Even if nobody else expected it of us, we expect it of each other, because we know the talent on this team and we know we can do it."

Baker, and many of the seniors, have played together for a long time, some as far back as elementary school.

"I've played with all these girls since I was like, eight years old," said senior centerfielder Megan Ocanaz. "It's kind of sad - it's the last time we'll all be playing together, really."

So each game becomes another chance for the girls to postpone their softball goodbyes.

"I'm going to miss them, when the season's over," said right-fielder Tarynn Fortune, who was selected first team all-league. "They're my friends. They're my family, really. They have to be, we spend so much time together."

It also takes trust.

"They have my back, and I have theirs," said Tara Garcia, who covers third base. "Playing softball creates friendships. We make friends out here."

Being family means knowing where the other players are going to be, Baker said. Small signals and hours of practice turn into successful play.

The girls practice about two and a half hours a day, five days a week, during the regular season. Many of them also turn out on the weekends and in their free time, and are on summer leagues and go to year-round clinics.

"It's a lot of work," said senior second baseman Jill McDaniels, who was selected first team all-league. "I think a lot of people undermine softball sometimes. But everyone on this team works really hard. We all want to win."

They wouldn't be where they are without the hard work.

"Everyone is out here because they want to be," said senior Courtney Zaro, a left fielder. "Everyone wants to win. It's a great attitude, and if someone has a bad attitude, they fix it."

And with a fresh set of opponents and an 0-0 postseason record, the Blue Devils are all upbeat.

"I'm so excited," McDaniels said with a grin. "It's been a lot of hard work to get here."

"We've definitely worked hard for it," said Reardon. "The work this year has paid off. I came in this year wanting to leave a mark, and (being selected) offensive player of the year is something I'm giving to them. What I did to get that goes to the team."

Everyone else is there with her.

"I'm pumped," Baker said. "We're going to work as hard as we can, we want to go out and do everything we can as a team to win."

The high state and national rankings are another great accolade that the girls aren't worrying about.

"It's great, but we want to go out and have fun, and play," said McDaniels. "Everyone knows we have to live up to something, and winning is something we have to do."

And the undefeated league record is now something of the past.

"It's pretty much a new season," Zaro said. "What we did in league play doesn't matter anymore. We've got to start fresh."

That doesn't mean the season is forgotten. The girls, especially the seniors, see the 2010 season as one of the best they've played in.

"It was a really good season," Ocanaz said. "We went out to have fun, and we joked around a lot, but we all want to go out on top."

There are many moments for the seniors, who've been playing together for at least four years, that stand out, such as the third-place finish at state last year.

But it's the casual times that most remember - like dancing in the outfield.

"There are a lot of memories," said Reardon. "I can't just pick out one. This was probably the most memorable season we've had. We've had fun, but we've kept our ultimate goal in mind."

Although the dream of winning the league every year in a high school career crosses many players' minds, it's not something most teams accomplish.

"As a freshman, I always wanted to take the team to state," Fortune said. "We really expect to win. We expect to get some part of it."

Fortune was selected second team in the CBBN.

And while that's nice, she's not satisfied.

"For me, second place isn't good enough," she said. "It's nice to have the award, I can frame it and put it up on the wall, but we want to be first."

The Blue Devils also want to give it back to the school and the history of Wa-Hi softball.

"I'd rather be active and be out doing something for my school than sitting at home," said Baker, a three-sport athlete.

And keeping their spirits up - for softball and Wa-Hi - can take unusual steps, like blue accessories.

Ocanaz has royal blue bands on her braces. And all of the girls plan to spend the next few weeks draped in it.

For Alyson Ambler, a sophomore pitcher, this season is about giving back to the seniors.

"We were at state last year, and we'd never seen it before," Ambler said. "It's our goal now. Now we can see it, and we want to get there.

"We also want to give a gift to the seniors."

Ambler and Klicker are both rising underclassmen, win or lose in the next few weeks.

Last year's taste of the state level, and working with girls who've come before them, have helped prepare the younger Blue Devils for the future.

As league MVP, Klicker has allowed opposing teams an average of about three hits per game. But she's quick to share the title and the honor.

"I wasn't expecting it," she said. "I've got a great team behind me, a great defense. I know that if the (opposing team) does get a hit, they're going to take care of it."

And with the seniors moving on, Klicker and the other underclassmen plan to continue the tradition.

"We're definitely hoping to repeat this next year," she said. "We're sad to lose the seniors, but we're not worried about getting those openings filled. We've got a lot of talented underclassmen."

After the season ends, the seniors will go in different directions - Fortune plans to study nursing at Walla Walla Commuity College and isn't sure if she'll play ball; Baker and McDaniels are both already signed to play for the Warriors; Zaro will study physical education and play volleyball at Columbia Basin College; Garcia plans to study radiology at Western Washington University and isn't yet sure if she'll play club ball; Ocanaz is heading into the Marines and hopes to play on the women's league; Reardon is going to Whitworth College to study athletics and physical education and hopefully play ball.

But even with postseason just beginning, the girls have pride in the regular season's accomplishments.

Klicker, Ambler, Reardon and McDaniels were all selected to the first all-league team, as were sophomores Andrea Hamada and Paige Pontarolo. Fortune was named to the second team and junior third baseman Ashley Bezdicek was an honorable mention.

Wa-Hi's coaching staff, including head coach Jerry Humphreys and assistant coach Arch McHie, were selected Big Nine Cascade coaching staff of the year.

"It's been a great experience," said Humphreys. "These girls are great athletes and they're good people. They work hard, they're polite, respectful, they're talented."

In his 10 years coaching Wa-Hi softball, Humphreys has worked with many teams and personalities. This year's crew stands out, he said.

"Some years, you have to work hard to motivate the team," he said. "But this crew knows that if you want to make your goal, you have to do the conditioning and the not-fun stuff. They don't complain about it.

"This team is unique."

And with the rankings, media attention, titles and awards come high expectations, but this team of Blue Devils has the highest expectations of themselves.

"Right from the start, they've had more expectations of themselves than anyone from the outside," Humphreys said. "They put a pressure on themselves to achieve, and that pressure is nothing new. They don't take anything for granted."

Assistant coach McHie is Humphreys' link to the high school, according to Humphreys. McHie is the vocational education department chair, Future Farmers of America adviser and ASB faculty representative.

The postseason, for Wa-Hi, begins tonight when it hosts Pasco at 5 p.m. at Murr Field.

The Blue Devils beat the Bulldogs in the regular season in two 10-run, mercy-rule shortened games.

The district tournament is this weekend in Wenatchee, with regionals in Spokane next weekend.

And the biggest jewel in the Wa-Hi crown, the four-day state championship, begins May 27 in Tacoma.

"The only rank that matters is the one on May 29," Humphreys said.

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