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Lady Hounds set bar high

SOFTBALL: Gaston made it back to the state playoffs in the second year under coach Jerry Mettee, now the goal is to avenge last year's first-round exit
by: Tommy Whitcomb, Gaston qualified for the 2A state playoffs last year behind all-league pitcher Katrina Rios. In 2008, the Lady Greyhounds return Rios and every other starter

Jerry Mettee knows plenty about winning.

The veteran coach has won 238 games in a 13-year career that includes one state championship and five league titles during a 10-year stint at Banks.

In 2007, his second season at the helm of the Gaston softball program, Mettee guided the Lady Greyhounds to a 14-8 record, second place in the Northwest League and their first state playoff appearance in nine years.

And for Gaston fans, the good news keeps getting better - in 2008, Mettee will return every single player from last year's playoff team, including seven all-league selections.

'The expectations are high, and rightfully so,' Mettee said before last Friday's practice. 'The maturity, experience and instincts are there, now we have to build on those.'

The Lady Hounds will be anchored by three seniors, all of whom were All-Northwest League selections a year ago.

Third baseman Faith Hawley returns as one of the team's leading hitters after batting .364 last season with a team-high seven extra-base hits and 23 RBIs. She will be joined in the infield by fellow senior Angela Lance, who will start at second base. Lance led the team with seven sacrifice hits last year and also added 13 stolen bases. The final senior will be center fielder Julia Breidenbach, who was second on the team with a .458 on-base percentage and 24 stolen bases.

With so much returning talent and experience, what are the team's goals in 2008? A return to the playoffs? A league title? A state championship?

Try all of the above.

'Going to state was kind of a shock for us because none of us had ever done it before,' Hawley said, referring to Gaston's 8-0 loss to Pilot Rock in the first round of last year's 2A state playoffs. 'We know how it goes now.'

'We had a taste last year,' said Lance, interjecting. 'Now we're here to take the whole thing.'

If a state title is the Hounds' ultimate goal, a league title is their more immediate target. But in order to do that, Gaston will have to get past longtime rival Nestucca, which went 11-1 in league play last year and advanced to the 2A state semifinals. Gaston did manage a 5-3 victory over Nestucca late last season, handing the Bobcats their only league loss of the year and snapping a 15-game win streak in conference play that dated back to 2006 and the old West Valley League.

'Last year we took care of their winning streak. This year we're making sure they don't win [the league],' Breidenbach said.

The Lady Hounds are a confident bunch, and with good reason. In addition to the three returning seniors, Gaston brings back four other all-league players from a year ago - pitcher Katrina Rios, shortstop K'rene Delplanche, first baseman Marissa Hedin and catcher Ambree Richter.

Rios went 13-8 last year with a 2.65 ERA. In 136 innings of work, Rios walked just six batters and didn't throw a wild pitch all season. Her continued improvement will be one big key for Gaston.

Delplanche was Gaston's leading hitter and offensive catalyst last year. The junior led the team with a .370 batting average, 27 hits, 28 runs scored and 30 stolen bases. Hedin may be the Hounds' most versatile player. She batted .307 last year with six extra-base hits, 21 RBIs and 18 steals. Richter, meanwhile, will anchor the Gaston defense from her catcher position.

Other returning players include sophomores Jessica Garner, Leann Lance, Breann Steele, Brittany Steele and Samantha Turner. The only newcomer is freshman Becca Brown.

'We've played together for the last few years and a lot of us have played together since elementary school,' Hawley said. 'We all know each other's strengths and weaknesses, which is a definite positive.'

Mettee said his players' familiarity with each other and his coaching style has allowed the team to be farther along at this point in 2008 than they were at the same point in 2007.

'With so many returners, we immediately start the season more advanced than last year,' Mettee said. 'I have a preseason checklist of 30 things I want to work through before league play. But now it's review instead of introduction.'

Mettee also loaded up the Hounds' schedule with 3A, 4A and even 5A opponents. Of Gaston's 10 scheduled non-league opponents, seven were playoff teams a year ago, including reigning 3A state champion Valley Catholic.

'I purposefully built the schedule a little tougher than in previous years,' Mettee said. 'The playoff loss [last year] showed us where we need to be. Preseason isn't about wins and losses. It's about quality preparation. The majority of our preseason games will be against teams above our classification and that serves one purpose - getting into league contention.'

The message is ringing loud and clear with the players.

'Even if we don't win, we still get better,' Hawley said. 'It's just preseason.'

Further motivation for Mettee was watching Forest Grove win a 6A state softball title last year. The last three state championships won by teams in western Washington County have all come in softball - a fact not lost on Mettee.

'This area's rich in softball tradition,' he said. 'There's a legacy of success in this area. I want the kids to taste what that's like.'

And Mettee knows this might be Gaston's one shot at making a magical postseason run.

'An opportunity like this doesn't come around every year,' he said.