WALLA WALLA - Dynasty.
It's not a word high school athletes and coaches throw around lightly, and the Wa-Hi softball team is no exception.
From head coach Jerry Humphreys on down, the Blue Devils seem to take each practice - and game - one day at a time.
"I don't know if we've built a dynasty," Humphreys said. "We've been lucky enough to have some great athletes come through the program. We really try to stay active with the youth programs, we had our camp last Saturday and there's some pretty great talent coming up at all age levels, and that's pretty fun to watch."
But when looking at the Blue Devils' recent history, it's a hard word to avoid. In the past three seasons, Wa-Hi is a combined 83-5, including consecutive third-place finishes at the Class 4A state tournament in 2009 and 2010, and a state championship last season - Wa-Hi's first ever.
"They're not going to surprise anyone this year," Humphreys said. "But at the same time, that doesn't change what you do day-to-day. You come out, you're with people that you enjoy to be around, you're playing a game you love ... and if everyone stays healthy, and that chemistry and that glue is working, then by the end of the season, we've got as good a shot as anybody.
"We should be competitive for sure," Humphreys said earlier. "The way we look at it is: new team, same dream. We want to put our team into the position to win district and regionals and go to state and do well there."
Humphreys attributes the Blue Devils' recent success to both luck and talent.
That was certainly the case last year.
After outscoring its opponents 17-0 through the first three games of the 2011 state tournament, Wa-Hi clung to a 1-0 lead over Marysville-Pilchuck going into the bottom of the seventh inning in the championship game. Then-junior ace Alyson Ambler faced a bases-loaded situation with two outs and two strikeson M-P's Riley Fritz. All the talent in the world didn't matter at that point; if Ambler hit a batter, gave up a hit or threw several balls, the game was potentially over.
But she threw a strike instead, and Wa-Hi became the first state champion in the Columbia Basin Big Nine's history. And the first to shut out every opponent faced in the state tournament that anyone could remember.
This success has not quelled the Blue Devils' desire to win.
"I want to repeat," Ambler said. "I want to go out on a win. Not many teams get to finish their season with a win, and I want ours to finish out with a win.
"But not third place. I want first place."
Wa-Hi lost just two starters from that squad and returns Washington Gatorade Player of the Year, Big Nine MVP, and MaxPreps all-American pitcher/slugger Ambler. And she's not even the best hitter, at least not according to her batting average.
That honor goes to Ambler's teammate Libbie Jimenez who led the Blue Devils with a .510 average over 104 at-bats. And she's only a junior.
But Ambler is probably the team's most powerful batter. She batted .506 last season, drove in 34 runs and sent nine balls out of the park (compared to Jimenez's six homers).
"Alyson is a a super softball player, but she is a great individual, too," Humphreys said. "She's had a lot of success, and she's gotten a lot of recognition for it, but she just worked harder.
"What's impressed me the most is her ability to lead," he continued. "She's just doing a really nice job of knowing that you can't win on your own and helping others around her and doing her job."
Ambler's most startling stat is her slugging average. Her average, which is calculated by the number of bases taken over at-bats, is an eye-popping 1.011. To put that in real terms, every time she stepped to the plate, she, on average, singled.
That number is better than the MLB career record, held by Babe Ruth, the MLB season record, held by Barry Bonds, and the 2011 NCAA Division I record (1.007), held by New Mexico State's Hoku Nohara.
And the rest of the Blue Devils are just as impressive.
Jimenez slugged her way to an .827 average, senior Andrea Hamada hit .796, TraeAnn Payne hit .764 and the team averaged a .693 slugging percentage as a whole. The team's batting average was .421.
In the circle, Ambler and now-graduated Hope Klicker were an almost unstoppable one-two punch.
The only pitchers to see the circle for Wa-Hi last season, Ambler and Klicker combined for a .71 ERA and gave up just 27 runs on the season.
Ambler had a perfect 15-0 record as a pitcher and had a .57 ERA. She threw just under 70 percent strikes and gave up only one home run for the season.
So what might hold the Blue Devils back from a second title, other than luck?
"You're not going to replace a Hope Klicker," Humphreys said. "We're really lucky that we had Hope Klicker."
Klicker, the 2010 Washington Gatorade Player of the Year, was a presence in the batter's box as well as the pitcher's circle. She graduated after accumulating a .479 batting average, seven home runs and a team-leading 36 RBIs her senior season. In the circle, she recorded a 0.89 ERA en route to a 12-1 record.
Senior Jordan Heiser and sophomore Ellie Rassbach are competing for Klicker's spot. Neither had varsity experience last season.
Rassbach looked like she might be up to substantial task at a scrimmage Wednesday. Although her pitches didn't carry quite as much zing as Ambler's, she had no problem with control and looked to be in mid-season form.
The Blue Devils also lost third baseman Ashley Bezdicek to graduation. Andrea Hamada, who was an all-conference shortstop last season, will move over to take that position, opening shortstop for Libbie Jimenez to slide over from second.
Second base is still up in the air with freshman Jordana Storm and junior Sydney Schultz competing for the spot.
The outfield trio of Janelle Hartford, Payne and Mariah Gerling will likely remain the same.
Lastly, Kendsey Hill will reprise her role as the catcher.
Wa-Hi starts the season Saturday when it hosts a jamboree. It faces a pair of non-counting, 3-inning games against Waitsburg-Prescott and Moses Lake Saturday before traveling to play Union high school in Vancouver, Wash., Friday at 4 p.m.
The Blue Devils then travel to the University of Washington for the Husky Fastpitch Festival where they will face Centralia High School on the UW's field.