WALLA WALLA - Coach Jerry Humphreys' Wa-Hi Blue Devils learned in 2007 that they were not overmatched at the Washington Class 4A state softball tournament.
Although they failed to get back to state in 2008, they returned last year and proved that they were among the best in the state by bringing home the third-place trophy.
This year they've got their sights set just a bit higher.
"First, we learned that we could play with anybody over there," Humphreys recalled. "You could see it in their eyes. ‘Hey, we're as good as anybody.'
"Then, last year, we picked up that third-place trophy and we realized that there is no reason why we can't come away with the top prize."
The Blue Devils will try to prove that this weekend as one of 16 qualifiers for the Class 4A state tourney at SERA Fields in Tacoma. Wa-Hi opens play at 11 a.m. Friday against Emerald Ridge of Puyallup, which emerged Tuesday as the West Central region's No. 2 seed.
Westside weather delayed that tournament and Humphreys waited until Wednesday to learn who his team's first-round opponent would be.
"It could have been any one of eight teams," Humphreys said. "And we honestly, don't know a ton about any of those schools.
"We just want to get our athletes doing what they do best. Whoever is on the other side of the diamond, we will give them our best shot."
Wa-Hi takes an impressive 25-1 season record into state play.
The Blue Devils rebounded from their only loss of the season - to Big Nine Conference rival Richland in the district championship game - by avenging that defeat and capturing the regional championship last weekend in Spokane. Wa-Hi opened with a 7-0 victory over Gonzaga Prep, clinched a state berth with a 12-6 victory over Southridge and then avenged that Richland defeat and notched its second straight regional title with a 7-2 victory over the Bombers.
A year ago at state, Wa-Hi lost its second game and had to battle back through the tournament's loser-out bracket to earn the third-place trophy.
"We would love to stay on the winners' side and avoid having to play six games," Humphreys said. "Besides, you can't lose a game and come back and win first place. And that's still our goal."
With two top-flight pitchers in sophomore Alyson Ambler and junior Hope Klicker, Humphreys believes the Blue Devils are built for success at state. Ambler picked up two victories at regionals to run her record to 13-0, and Klicker pitched one victory to extend her record to 12-1.
"We are really fortunate to have two quality pitchers, either one who can carry the team," the coach said. "It's a big advantage over other teams to have two strong arms."
But Humphreys is well aware that it will take more than pitching alone to carry the Blue Devils to the ultimate prize.
"We need to play well defensively behind our pitchers," Humphreys said. "And pitching in general steps up a level at state, so our hitters have to be on track, not just for the long ball but for the short game as well."
Wa-Hi will play a second game Friday at 3 p.m., either in the quarterfinals or in the consolation bracket. The semifinals are slated for Saturday morning at 9 and the championship at 2:30 in the afternoon.