Lady Vikings look to shake label of fluke state champs

SOFTBALL: A year removed from winning the first state championship in school history, Forest Grove wants to silence the critics who labeled last year's magical postseason run as nothing more than luck
by: Tommy Whitcomb, Forest Grove will return 10 members of last year’s OSAA 6A state championship softball team, including five starters.

Forest Grove perfected the art of flying under the radar in 2007.

Game after game during the 6A state softball playoffs, the Lady Vikings were expected to lose to bigger, faster and stronger opponents. Yet game after game, the Lady Vikings found new and dramatic ways to win, riding their underdog persona all the way to a state championship.

With a solid core of returning players, including All-State pitcher and playoff MVP Emma Gronseth, no one will be overlooking Forest Grove in 2008.

Or will they?

'I've seen some fan opinions where people still don't think that highly of us,' said head coach Ole Evenson, last year's 6A State Coach of the Year. 'There are definitely people out there who think that last year was a fluke.'

Fluke or not, Forest Grove's 2007 credentials weren't that impressive up until the moment the Lady Vikings hoisted the state championship trophy on June 2. Forest Grove finished the regular season with a 13-12 record and didn't win its own conference (McMinnville finished first). In fact, Forest Grove didn't even finish second in its own conference (Tualatin took that spot), losing five of its last eight regular season games to land in third place.

That lack of respect is already carrying over into 2008, where the reigning state champs will likely begin the season unranked in both the AP and Coaches Polls (although neither had been released at press time).

But the Lady Vikings so thoroughly embraced their underdog role last year that some returning players prefer to be disregarded.

'It does seem like people are still overlooking us,' said sophomore Katy Brosig, the Lady Vikings' starting shortstop. 'They really do think it was just luck. We're kind of glad about that. We don't mind being the dark horse again.'

Despite low expectations from opposing teams and fans, the Lady Vikings have set the bar high for themselves. Among their goals: to bond as a team, have less off-the-field drama and post a better record at home.

But what about defending their state title?

'We had a team meeting the other day and they rattled off this big list of goals, but no one said anything about a state title,' Evenson said. 'So we asked them about it and their response was, 'Duh! Of course we want to win another state title.'

'That shows a great mindset. They expect big things from themselves. That's exactly where we want the softball program to be.'

Whether it's explicitly stated or not, winning another state championship is well within Forest Grove's reach in 2008. The Lady Viks return 10 players from last year's team, including five starters, giving Evenson a very experienced squad despite having just one senior on the roster.

The list of clutch returners begins with Gronseth, a junior who earned Pacific Conference Co-Pitcher of the Year honors in 2007 (she shared the award with McMinnville's Anna Bertrand). Gronseth posted a 1.04 ERA and struck out 219 batters in a little over 182 innings of work last year. Equally dangerous at the plate, she batted .392 with 12 RBIs and a .500 slugging percentage. In Forest Grove's five playoff games, Gronseth batted an eye-popping .750 with five RBIs, driving in the winning runs in the Lady Viks' semifinal win over Westview and the state championship game against Central Catholic.

'Emma's personality is to lead by example,' Evenson said. 'She's never going to be the one who yells or gets in someone's face. She's one of the hardest working players on the team and when she's out on the field, she gives it everything she has and never gets rattled. The other girls feed off that.'

Forest Grove returns the left side of its infield with sophomore Lindsey Rennie at third base and Brosig at short. As freshmen last year, Rennie batted .328 with six RBIs and Brosig hit .299 with five RBIs.

Junior Claire Van Domelen will move in from the outfield and take over at second base - the spot left vacant by the graduation of her sister, Leah.

Faith Evenson, who started at first base last year, will move behind the plate to fill the void left by All-State catcher Nikki Kemper. Freshman Kristi Vandebergh and sophomore Molly Normandin will split time at first this season.

In the outfield, sophomore Bridget White will start in center and junior Krystal Huffman will move to right. Left field will be patrolled by either junior Erin Haworth or senior Kammi Kroeplin.

'We have 11 kids on the full-time varsity roster and we could start any of them and not have a big hole,' Evenson said. 'It's going to be a struggle to make a lineup every day, which is a good thing.'

In addition, Evenson will have three swing players at his disposal. Junior Ashlee Wehage, sophomore Kara Smith and freshman Alyssa Smith will split time between varsity and JV.

'This is a smart group of kids who love playing the game and hate losing,' Evenson said. 'We've seen a lot of good things so far, but there's still room for improvement. You never want to be playing your best ball the first game of the season.'

Forest Grove may not start the 2008 season as most fans' favorite to win another state title, but the Lady Vikings can already feel the difference between last year and this year.

'There was less pressure [last year] because people weren't expecting much from us,' Brosig said. 'But it was somewhat of a disappointment that no one had any faith in us.'

This year, Kroeplin said, the team is trying to combat rising expectations by going back to basics.

'We all know that the pressure is there,' she said. 'We're just trying to relax, have fun and play the game - remind ourselves the reasons we play in the first place.'

At least one Lady Viking is ready to take up the mantle of The Team to Beat in 2008.

'A lot of us play summer ball so we know a lot of the players from other teams,' White said. 'I think they're gunning for us. There's more pressure, but we're up for it.'