WALLA WALLA - Thursday's weather had to make Wa-Hi softball coach Jerry Humphreys very happy.
After several weeks of alternate rain, wind and cold, Thursday's light clouds and breezes finally brought a chance to hit the field and play.
And the 2011 Blue Devils want weather on their side, as they eye another strong Big Nine season.
"I'm expecting a great year," Humphreys said. "We've got a great group of kids out to play, and weather-permitting, they look pretty good."
Weather wasn't on the Blue Devil's side as they ended last season at the rain-shortened state tournament in Tacoma, where they finished third for the second consecutive year.
Although seven girls from that team had graduated, five - including Washington Player of the Year Hope Klicker - are back in blue this spring.
"We're pretty excited to have them, that's for sure," Humphreys said of his five returning starters. "They're solid players and four of them were All Conference."
Third baseman Ashley Bezdicek was an honorable mention on the Big Nine list, while Klicker was on the first team, in addition to other accolades.
Juniors Alyson Ambler (pitcher) and Andrea Hamada (outfield) were both first-team selections, and join TraeAnn Payne to round out the returning juniors.
Several strong underclassmen have also risen to the varsity team, while another has transfered in.
Janelle Hartford, a junior outfielder, traded in DeSales green for Wa-Hi blue, while sophomores Kendsey Hill (catcher) and Libbie Jimenez (middle infielder) complete the main starters' roster.
Senior Savannah Scarborough, juniors Devyn Humphreys and Jordan Heiser and sophomores Mattie Smyth and Mariah Gerling and freshman Jacie McDaniels will also play, though their roles have yet to be determined, Humphreys said.
And with the team mostly hammered out, the girls are ready to hammer some balls.
"We're anxious to play," Humphreys said. "We want to get on the field, get our uniforms on and see how things shake out."
They'll have the chance Saturday, when the Blue Devils host DeSales and Touchet in a jamboree. Each school will play three-inning games against the others in a chance to work out winter rust.
It's a needed opportunity, Humphreys said. "We haven't had as much field time as we'd like," he said. "Hope (Klicker) and Alyson (Ambler) are throwing really well and they've worked hard all winter. They're ready to go and looking good. We're chomping at the bit to get going."
After the jamboree, the Blue Devils travel to a doubleheader Tuesday at Southridge and then host Kennewick March 29. Both the Big Nine games are nonconference, as the Big Nine underwent another restructuring. Wa-Hi will now play all six of the other Class 4A Big Nine teams - Moses Lake, Wenatchee, Chiawana, Davis, Eisenhower and Richland.
"The Kennewick and Southridge games will be good indicators of where we are and where we want to be against a good, quality opponent," Humphreys said.
It's Richland the Blue Devils are eyeing the most. The Bombers also finished third at state last season after rain shortened the tournament and four teams were awarded third. Richland also handed the Blue Devils their only league defeat of the year in Big Nine 4A District last season.
"We're looking forward to competing in the Big Nine," Humphreys said. "We want to be near the top. We've set our goals pretty high, so that's the objective.
"Richland will be pretty formidable this year. ... They're the only team we've played every year, but in all sports, Richland is a rivalry game and we always look forward to those."
But Wa-Hi will have a chance to see some other new competition, as well. The Blue Devils travel to Seattle to play Holy Names and South Kitsap on the University of Washington softball fields April 15-16.
"They'll help us stay in rhythm and see good pitching, so it will help us out," Humphreys said.
That kind of help, and the strength of the Big Nine, will prepare the Blue Devils well, he said. Their goals are big.
The team motto this season is "Bring it," but not as a taunt, Humphreys said. It's meant to motivate his Blue Devils to bring everything they've got to every at-bat and every throw.
"It means, ‘We need your talent and effort, so bring that,'" he said. "I want them to bring whatever they have."
"We want to do well enough in league, regionals and districts to be in contention at state," he said. "With the kids we have on the field - we have the luxury of two really strong pitchers, and a good cast around them - this team has the potential to make it to state and put on a good showing there.
"Our goal is to get there and do well."