Title run pleasant surprise for young Pioneers

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MILTON-FREEWATER — Who could have guessed?

Well, Nicole Christian, perhaps. But not right away.

After watching her Mac-Hi softball team lose to Banks 1-0 in last year’s Oregon Class 4A state championship game in Corvallis, and then seeing nine of her players walk down the aisle to pick up their high school diplomas, no one could have blamed the Pioneers coach for lamenting a lost opportunity.

“These girls have been a part of the program for four years now, so it is going to be hard to replace all nine of them,” Christian said at the time. “Whether it is hitting or on defense, it is going to be difficult.”

Nevertheless, the coach was encouraged when she greeted 40 players at the team’s initial practice this spring, even though there wasn’t a senior among them.

“And once we started practicing and seeing the talent, it went from rebuilding to reloading,” she said.

The jury was still out, however, when Mac-Hi opened the season by losing three of its first six games, including a 10-0 drubbing at Richland.

“It was hit and miss, as far as seeing what we could do,” Christian admitted.

It was in that third defeat, a 4-2 loss at Yamhill-Carlton, the No. 1 team in Oregon’s Class 4A preseason rankings, that Christian and her players came to realize their true potential.

“Yamhill had a pitcher who had just signed with the University of Memphis,” Christian said. “And we outhit them. We had a few errors and lost the game, but it was a road game against one of the best teams in the state. And we were right there where we could have beaten them.

“That’s when we really clicked, and it gave us momentum for the rest of the season.”

Twenty consecutive victories later — a run that included a 12-0 sweep through the Greater Oregon League, impressive non-league wins over Hood River, Pendleton and Wa-Hi, and culminated by a 7-0 victory over Henley in last weekend’s state championship game in Corvallis — the Pioneers held aloft the state trophy that had slipped through their fingers the previous year.

Not bad for a squad of four juniors, five sophomores and a trio of freshmen.

It helps, of course, when one of those juniors is perhaps the premier prep pitcher in the state. After moving up to the varsity as a freshman, Colette Robert has pitched every game for the Pioneers the last two seasons and has posted a 46-7 record.

“She’s that kid who, every time she is on the mound, we are going to be in the game, no matter who we play — Class 5A, 6A, it doesn’t matter,” Christian said.

And when she’s not in the circle dazzling opposing batters with an assortment of rapid-fire pitches, Robert punishes opposing pitchers any time she has a bat in her hands. Her robust .710 batting average this season shattered the school record of .597 that Megan Reed, one of those nine seniors from a year ago, compiled in 2013 and enjoyed holding for one season.

Ironically, Reed broke the old school mark of .570 that Christian had held since her senior season at Mac-Hi in 1996. Christian, a shortstop during her playing days, went on to Eastern Oregon University where she was a two-time NAIA Division II All-American and was recently inducted into the Mountaineers’ Hall of Fame.

Reed, who earned all-state honors in 2013, played shortstop at Mount Hood Community College this spring and helped lead the Saints to the NWAACC title. Several other seniors on last year’s team also played college softball this spring, including catcher Cheyenne Kessler at Walla Walla CC, first baseman Nicole Hendley at Blue Mountain and utility player Heather Carter at Walla Walla University.

“I had such a great connection with those girls, and their families,” Christian said. “They are like your owns kids leaving and going off to college, and you’re not sure about the new faces and the new sets of parents.

“Most of the kids on this year’s team had never had me as their coach.”

Other than Robert, the only member of this year’s team who saw significant playing time in 2013 was Makayla Kelly, who took over at first base when Hendley suffered a wrist injury midway in the season. Kelly, one of this year’s four juniors, batted over .300 and played a pivotal role defensively at first base for the state champs.

“She stepped up huge for us at first base,” Christian said. “She had a great year and made only one or two errors all season.”

Stefanie Copeland, Reed’s replacement at shortstop, and Adriene Streeter, who replaced graduated Karli Cortez at third base, were the other two juniors on the roster.

“Stefanie was huge for us hitting right behind Colette,” Christian said of Copeland. “Teams couldn’t pitch around Colette because Stefanie was right behind her, and she was one of our better hitters.

“Adriene had very little varsity time, but she practiced with us pretty much every day and chose to learn from Karli, who was one of the best third basemen in the state.”

Streeter was having a solid season, Christian said, until she sustained a concussion in an on-field collision and missed the team’s final 12 regular-season games. She was medically cleared in time for the playoffs and saw playing time as a pinch runner.

Abi Biggs, one of the team’s five sophomores who had moved up from last year’s junior varsity squad, took over at third base. And in her first game as a starter against Pendleton, she hit a home run and never relinquished her spot in the lineup.

“I knew she had the power,” Christian said of Biggs, who finished the season with five homers, a .360 batting average and was one of the team leaders in runs batted in. “We weren’t sure how she would handle bunts and slappers at third base because she had practiced mainly in the outfield, but she has a cannon for an arm and she used it in getting those slappers out.”

Sophomores Brooke Kralman, Jenny Field and Brittney Erb earned starting positions in Mac-Hi’s outfield and used their combined speed to shore up Mac-Hi’s defense as well as its base running.

“We had a very fast outfield,” Christian said.

“Brooke batted leadoff for us and did exactly what I asked, to see as many pitches as possible and put the ball in play. Jenny batted .500 for us. And Brittney is tall and lanky and athletic and was really good at getting down the line and picking up hits.”

Shannon Carter, a transfer from Umatilla, was the fifth sophomore and quickly found a home at second base.

“She fit in huge with her non-stop hustle and flat-out, ESPN-type dives in the dirt and on the grass,” Christian said. “And we switched her to the slapping side as a hitter and she put a lot of pressure on the defense from the left side of the plate.”

Freshmen Mallory Copeland, Kaitlyn Slusaranko and Sydney Richwine rounded out Christian’s varsity roster. Slusarenko and Richwine saw limited time, but Copeland emerged as one of the team’s key players.

“When we started practice Mallory and her older sister Stefanie were both shortstops, and I had to decide where Mallory would help us the most,” the coach said. “And we decided catcher was the spot.

“And even though shortstop has been her main position, she was a wall behind home plate. And she and Colette were amazing together. The kid has a ton of talent and does not play like a freshman.”

She also batted fifth in the lineup and had three hits in the championship game, Christian said.

“She has the speed to put down a bunt and the power to blast it to the fence,” Christian said.

Along with the state championship, individual honors rolled in as the season drew to a close.

Robert was selected first-team all-state and the Class 4A Pitcher of the Year. Field was a first-team all-state selection in the outfield, and Kralman, Carter and both Copelands earned second-team all-state at their respective positions.

Needless to say, they were all first-team all-Greater Oregon League selections as well, with Robert nabbing GOL Player of the Year honors. Biggs, Kelly and Erb were second-team all-GOL picks.

And Christian was named the Class 4A and GOL Coach of the Year.

Now the pressure is on to repeat as state champs with the entire roster returning.

“Honestly, I don’t think they feel pressure,” Christian said. “They are so relaxed and they enjoy playing with each other. I only saw them nervous one game all year.

“We won the state title, but it wasn’t like we talked about it the whole time. It was more about executing each inning and each game, and they kept getting better and better and getting more confidence as a group that hadn’t played together before.”

Mac-Hi has won state championships in boys soccer and wrestling in the past. But Christian is proud of what it means that her team is the first girls state championship team in school history.

“For me, it’s awesome to see little girls asking our players for autographs, to look into the stands and see them packed, to look into the crowd and see familiar faces who were willing to make the six-hour drive (to Corvallis), and for the police escort coming into town.

“Softball is huge in this town, starting with all those Little League coaches who put in the time and then on to ASA. We’ve received a ton of support and it’s nice to be able to give back to the community.

“A high school state title is big for our school and the pride of our town.”

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