SOFTBALL: One-loss Forest Grove still isn't getting much love from statewide softball fans
Ole Evenson doesn't know what his team needs to do to earn some respect this year.
Forest Grove, the reigning 6A state softball champion, ran its early-season record to 5-1 last week with a strong showing at the North Medford Invitational, including a 3-1 victory over Roseburg, which spent most of last season ranked No. 1 in the state and even cracked the USA Today Super 25 national fastpitch poll at one point.
So far this season the Lady Vikings have beaten three Top 10 teams from a year ago and tied another (a rain-shortened 0-0 draw against West Salem last Tuesday). Forest Grove will up the ante this week by playing three more playoff-caliber teams in Westview, Glencoe and Aloha.
'We're like the Rodney Dangerfield of Oregon softball,' Evenson said. 'We get no respect.'
Fans who wrote off last year's state title run as a fluke seem content to do so again in 2008. Although the 6A Associated Press and Coaches Polls haven't been released yet, Forest Grove's name hasn't come up in many pre-season Top 10 discussions on message boards and other statewide softball forums.
That fact doesn't seem to bother the Lady Vikings, who warmly embraced their underdog persona a year ago.
'The girls don't care. It doesn't bother them,' Evenson said. 'They just keep working hard and focusing on the things they need to do to get better.'
One of those things is to play against the best competition possible, and Forest Grove took care of that last week, squaring off against Sprague, West Salem and Roseburg - all playoff teams in 2007 - at the North Medford Invitational.
Forest Grove clipped Sprague (2-3) in the tournament opener on Monday, scoring five runs in the third inning to erase an early deficit and secure a 6-3 victory. Forest Grove was scheduled to face Glencoe - last year's 5A state runner-up - in a second game on Monday, but it was rained out and will be made up this week in Forest Grove.
The Lady Vikings came back on Tuesday morning and upended Roseburg (3-3) and star pitcher Mikayla Endicott, last year's 6A State Player of the Year.
Endicott and Forest Grove ace Emma Gronseth engaged in a classic pitcher's duel, with each hurler retiring the first nine batters they faced. Gronseth blinked first, allowing a run in the top of the sixth inning, but she redeemed herself in the bottom of the frame with an infield single that sparked the game-winning rally.
Katy Brosig got things going in the sixth with a two-out single and consecutive stolen bases. Claire Van Domelen drew a walk and stole second to put two runners in scoring position for Gronseth. The junior hit a blooper just past the pitcher's mound, scoring Brosig from third. A heads-up Van Domelen raced around third and also scored, giving Forest Grove a 2-1 lead. Gronseth took second on the play at the plate and Faith Evenson followed with an RBI single that scored pinch runner Alyssa Smith for the 3-1 margin of victory.
'I had a couple coaches come up to me after the game and say that was some of the best baserunning they've ever seen,' Evenson said. 'The girls are starting to learn that when you're struggling with the bats, you can create some things with your baserunning.'
Gronseth retired the final three batters to preserve the win. She finished with 10 strikeouts in seven innings, allowing three hits and two walks. Endicott gave up five hits and three earned runs in six innings, striking out nine.
'That was big-time,' Evenson said of the win over Roseburg. '[McMinnville] beat them 1-0 with an unearned run in the 10th inning, so it was nice to see us perform well. Mac won the league last year and they're undefeated this year, so we're sort of using them as our measuring stick right now.'
The final game of the tournament was an anticlimactic 0-0 tie against West Salem on Tuesday afternoon that was called due to the tournament's time limit.
'Everybody was really exhausted and it showed,' Evenson said. 'It was our poorest offensive showing of the year. We never really got good contact.'
Forest Grove had only one hit, but solid defense kept West Salem off the scoreboard too. The Titans (4-1) had six baserunners in the game but couldn't scratch out a run against Gronseth. Playing international tiebreaking rules in the seventh inning, West Salem bunted a runner over to third and tried to squeeze her in for the win, but Forest Grove third baseman Lindsey Rennie read the play and made a perfect flip to catcher Faith Evenson to preserve the tie.
'It was a good trip,' coach Evenson said. 'I thought we did some real good things. I said last week that we've been starting slow defensively and making too many mistakes, then we came out against Roseburg and West Salem and had our best defensive games of the season.'
The Lady Vikings opened a tough week on Tuesday with a home game against Westview (2-2), the team they beat in the semifinals of last year's state playoffs. Results of that game were not available at press time.
The challenging week continues with a home game against Glencoe (2-3) on Thursday and a trip to Aloha (2-4) on Friday.
'We need to learn what we can do and what we need to improve,' Evenson said. 'Plus we can also get a look at some teams we might see in the playoffs.'