WALLA WALLA - Wa-Hi's softball team makes its third straight trip to the state Class 4A tournament with the No. 1 seed out of regional when the Blue Devils open against Thomas Jefferson at Merkel Park in Spokane Friday.
The difference this year, however, just might be Wa-Hi's come-from-behind, 7-4 victory over Richland for the regional championship last Saturday.
The Bombers handed the Blue Devils their only defeat this season, and jumped out to a 4-0 lead two innings into the regional title game.
But Wa-Hi stayed the course, pulling within a run in the fourth inning and putting together a four-run seventh for the victory.
"Richland's a good team, they always battle," Blue Devils coach Jerry Humphreys said. "We consider it a rivalry, and they do as well. They were definitely ready to play, and put four runs on us. But hats off to us, we were able to battle back and win.
"I think it was big for us mentally and confidence-wise," he said. "We do have two great pitchers (Hope Klicker and Alyson Ambler) who have been lights-out all year. But it was great for the whole team to see we're not just a pitching team. We can hit and rally around when we need to."
As evidence of the Blue Devils' offensive prowess, they've smacked 33 home runs so far this season - the most ever at this point, Humphreys said - and eight players have hit a homer. Wa-Hi has a .442 batting average and .576 on-base average.
"We can hit for power, but we can also just put the ball in play when need be," Humphreys said. "We've had some great hitting teams over the last few years, but this year they are very confident and very aggressive. They like to hit, and work hard on it."
Combine that with other Blue Devil strengths, and Wa-Hi hopes that works out to higher finishes at state than the third-places the last two years.
Humphreys can't help but point to his two pitchers' numbers this season.
"There are no other programs with two dominant pitchers," he said. "They are high-quality players."
Ambler has a 13-0 record with 156 strikeouts and 14 walks with a .67 ERA in 84 innings of work in the circle this season.
"She's had a tremendous year," Humphreys said.
Klicker is 10-1 with 87 strikeouts, 19 walks and a 1.06 ERA in 66 innings of work.
"She's not a slouch by any stretch," Humphreys said.
And then Humphreys talks about the strong Wa-Hi infield.
"Our infield is younger, but it's experienced," he said.
Andrea Hamada and Libbie Jimenez both have shortstop-quality talents, with Hamada holding down the spot and Jimenez taking care of second base.
"It's great to have shortstop range at second base," Humphreys said.
Ashley Bezdicek is at third, and Klicker and Ambler trade off at first base when not in the circle.
And Kendsey Hill has the task of catching the two pitchers.
"She wasn't all-conference, but she has the tough task of catching high quality pitchers and does a great job," Humphreys said of Hill. "That's a tough infield - as tough as I've ever seen."
As for the Blue Devils' first opponent at state, Thomas Jefferson brings an eighth seed and 16-8 record into Friday's noon opener.
"There's 16 teams left to play, and everybody's going to be good and ready to play," Humphreys said. "The key is, who's going to be ready to play Saturday."
Wa-Hi, with three seniors, six juniors, four sophomores and three freshmen, have plenty of state tournament experience.
"Only the freshmen haven't been with us and participating in a state game," Humphreys said. "And having been there, they're used to dealing with the excitement of the crowd and the jitters of playing there. That works in our favor for sure."
If there's one factor that there's no control over, it's the weather. Last year, multiple teams wound up with third-place finishes after rain shortened the state tournament in Tacoma.
This year, the tournament is in Spokane, but the weather forecast isn't much better.
"Rain is the great equalizer," Humphreys said, although he acknowledged having the tournament closer to home is a benefit. "The shorter bus ride is nice, but we're still away. An away game is an away game. But these kids are used to being on the road. We only had six home games this year, so they know how to travel and play on the road."
The Blue Devils head to Spokane Thursday, will practice there Thursday afternoon and then rest up for Friday's tournament.
"We're excited to still be playing," Humphreys said. "We've got our sights set high."
Washington state tournaments
Class 2B softball
at Gateway Sports Complex, Yakima
Dayton vs. Reardan, 9 a.m. Friday
DeSales vs. Toutle Lake, 11 a.m. Friday
Class 2B baseball
at Parker Field, Yakima
DeSales vs. Seattle Lutheran, 7 p.m. Friday
Class 4A softball
at Merkel Park, Spokane
Wa-Hi vs. Thomas Jefferson, noon Friday
Oregon state tournaments
Class 2A softball
Enterprise-Joseph at Weston-McEwen, 5:30 p.m. today
Class 4A softball
Newport at Mac-Hi, 3 p.m. today
Class 1A/2A baseball
Weston-McEwen at Lowell-Mohawk, 3 p.m. today