Keyes looks to keep Big Blue Bus rolling

Walla Walla High School softball coach Kate Keyes pitches to Blue Devil batters during batting practice Wednesday, March 6. Keyes graduated from Wa-Hi in 2005 and takes over for retired coach Jerry Humphreys this season.

Walla Walla High School softball coach Kate Keyes pitches to Blue Devil batters during batting practice Wednesday, March 6. Keyes graduated from Wa-Hi in 2005 and takes over for retired coach Jerry Humphreys this season. Photo by Matthew Zimmerman Banderas.

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WALLA WALLA — Coming off a second-place finish at state, and a state championship the year before that, it would be pretty easy for new Walla Walla High School softball coach Kate Keyes to allow her team to rest on its laurels.

That’s not happening.

Wa-Hi, which has been to state five times in six years and tore up the Columbia Basin Big Nine en route to a 53-3 record over the past two years, has its pitching rotation figured out — and that’s about it.

Keyes, who was a Wa-Hi varsity assistant for two years and the junior varsity head coach before taking the head job in the wake of longtime coach Jerry Humphreys’ retirement, has opened competition at nearly every position and is going back to fundamentals in her first spring driving the Big Blue Bus.

Along with pitchers Ellie Rassbach and Kate Ferenz, senior outfielder Mattie Smyth has locked up a spot in the outfield, but “the rest of our roster is kind of up for grabs,” Keyes said.

“We’re just moving kids around and seeing what they can do,” she said. “Time will tell — as important as defense is, their ability to put the bat on the ball will help earn them a spot on the field as well.”

Although Wa-Hi has eight players returning from last year’s varsity squad, including five seniors, the Blue Devils look to get back to basics.

“Some of the things that we’re going to focus on this year, not that they didn’t do that in years past, is focusing on the little things, making the routine plays,” Keyes said. “I think as a team we have to focus on fundamentals. Senior shortstop Libbie Jimenez needs to make sure that she’s making routine plays just as much as sophomore outfielder Kendall Davis. I just think it’s a place we need to focus in on.”

So is the program undergoing a reboot?

“As we are bringing some new girls in, it might seem that way, but we have high expecations,” Keyes said. “It’s a matter of, yes, bringing those underclassmen up to that level of competition. But as a team they’re working, practicing and playing like (state is) what they’re after.”

And Wa-Hi isn’t undergoing a total transformation.

Humphreys, who guided Wa-Hi to a 229-89 record over a 12-year span, is still involved with the program and Keyes is a Humphreys protoge: she played for him before graduating from Wa-Hi in 2005 and coached the last two seasons under his tutelage.

Although this year’s roster, with just five seniors, isn’t as veteran as in years past, those seniors are providing a lot of leadership.

“Absolutely, they’ve already stepped up,” Keyes said of her upperclassmen. “There’s incredible leadership out there, and what’s more impressive than the stats is that they are coming together as a team and pushing each other to make each other better. That’s that we’re trying to push as a coaching staff, to be a team and work together and go from there.”

The biggest change for Wa-Hi this season will be in the pitcher’s circle.

Junior pitcher Rassbach saw limited time behind the dominant Alyson Ambler, who graduated and is now attending the University of Connecticut on a full-ride softball scholarship, and her style is different, too.

Where Ambler dominated with the rise-ball, a pitch geared toward strikeouts, Rassbach throws a drop-ball, which makes for easy-to-field grounders, but not as many strikeouts.

“She’s looking good,” said Keyes of Rassbach. “She’s coming out strong — she put in a lot of work in the offseason.

“She’s still a junior, though, and obviously she didn’t get a lot of innings last year, so it will be a year of gaining more experience for her.”

Ferenz, a sophomore brought up from junior varsity to take the No. 2 spot in the rotation, is still adjusting from basketball season, where she was part of a Blue Devil squad that made it to regionals this winter, but she showed well in Wa-Hi’s jamboree against Pasco last Saturday.

“She’s doing great, throwing hard,” Keyes said. “She’s a multiple-sport athlete, so it’s always just a different set of muscles getting going. She looked great against Pasco in our jamboree, though. She threw five strikeouts and just showed a lot of domination.”

Unlike last season, where Ambler usually pitched both ends of Wa-Hi’s doubleheaders, both pitchers will see starts, at least early in the season.

“We want to make sure we’re preparing both of them early in the season, so that they’re both ready down the line for potential postseason competition,” Keyes said.

On the offensive side of things, Wa-Hi should still be a powerhouse.

The Blue Devils return four players that batted better than last season’s team average of .439.

Jimenez, who will likely reprise her role at short, batted .495 in 112 appeances at the plate.

Senior Kendsey Hill (catcher, third base) batted .474, Rassbach (who will play first base when not pitching) hit for .487, and sophomore Jordi Storm batted a huge .577 in 90 plate appearances.

Smyth batted .300 last season, and Keyes is expecting big things from junior catcher/outfielder Jacie McDaniels.

“In her first at-bat she hit a home run off Pasco (in Wa-Hi’s jamboree),” Keyes said of McDaniels, who batted .333 in 13 chances when brought up for the Blue Devils’ postseason run last year. “She just steps up when she’s in competition, so we’re excited to see what her bat has in store for us this season.”

Wa-Hi’s other seniors include outfielders Sydney Schultz and Jessican Norby.

Sophomore Lauren Likes and junior Maddy Aichele are competing for a spot at third base, and Strong has been rotating between infield and outfield during Wa-Hi’s preseason.

Wa-Hi defeated Pasco 8-0 and fell to Hanford 1-0 in its season-opening jamboree, a pair of non-counting, three-inning games.

The Blue Devils open the regular season Friday when they visit Pendleton at 4 p.m., and they return for a four-game homestand against Connell, Chiawana, and Pendleton through the beginning of April before they hit the road again.

As much as things have changed this season for Wa-Hi, Big Blue will still have a Humphreys tint.

“All of our coaching staff were Blue Devil players previously, and they played for Jerry (Humphreys),” Keyes said. “So that’s nice, because as I step into the head-coach role, we all know what we’re teaching strategically and fundamentally, so that’s made it a lot easier.”

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