Can they do it again?
SOFTBALL: Metro League teams have won three straight state titles and might make it four in '07
You hear it trumpeted every year in every sport, that the Metro League is the state's best.
But no sport can lay claim to that assertion more than softball, where the Metro League has crowned the past three state champions (Westview in 2004, Southridge in 2005, and Jesuit in 2006), provided three of the four state semifinalists a year ago and looks well armed to do it again in 2007.
Jesuit brings back eight starters from its championship team including two-time Metro Pitcher of the Year Paige Hall. The Skyhawks return three first-team all-leaguers and five starters, and Westview brings back five all-leaguers and eight starters from 2006.
'You've got to pick Jesuit to be favored in the league and the state,' said Westview coach Ronda McKenzie. 'And Southridge is still a great team with great hitters and I think we're in that mix too.'
'Jesuit looks to be as tough as last season,' said Sunset coach Spencer Mills, whose Apollos are also expected to fight for a state playoff berth. 'I think the Metro League is the toughest and it will be a fight for the playoffs berths. Every team has a chance.'
While Jesuit has fairly earned its status as favorite, the Skyhawks and Wildcats have their believers too.
'You still can't count out Southridge. They're solid and they're well coached,' said Jesuit coach Jim Speciale. 'And Westview, they'll play that short game and they'll get some people.
Sunset, Beaverton and Aloha are no slouches either, and it's that tough top-to-bottom nature of the new slimmed down Metro League that should make the 2007 campaign such fun to watch. Following are previews of the varsity softball teams at the six Metro League high schools.
ALOHA - Let's face it - the last couple years of Aloha softball haven't always been fun.
The Warriors, a perennial Metro League power in the late '90s and early 2000s, fell on hard times in 2004-05, but saw at least a glimmer of hope in '06 when the team went 4-14 in Metro play and climbed out of the cellar for the first time in three years.
Now, the Warriors hope to continue that trend in 2007 under first-year coach Laura Clark, 24, herself a former Warrior star circa 2001.
'I believe we will do well in league this year and improve on our record from last year,' said Clark, in her first year as head coach after playing collegiate at North Idaho College. 'I think the key to our success is having great team unity, believing that we can succeed, and playing consistently at our level.'
This year's Warriors will be led by junior pitcher Shaunte Muller (a second-team all-Metro pick in '06), junior catcher Makenzie Delenikos (honorable mention), sophomore shortstop Haylee Woll and freshman center fielder Stephanie Lascelles.
Clark called Delenikos 'a great leader (with) great athleticism,' praised Woll for her fundamentals and dedication, and Lascelles for her 'incredible speed and arm strength.'
Muller, meanwhile, will team with junior Lucy Leggett and sophomore Felicia Woodard to handle the pitching duties for Aloha.
Muller has 'good speed, lots of pitches, can throw junk for strikes (and) she is a very strong defensive player and vocal leader,' Clark said, adding that Leggett also had 'good speed, accurate, and again a very strong defensive player. She also has great composure as a pitcher and sets a nice tone on defense.'
The rest of the infield will include freshman Trisha Filan at catcher, Kylie Delenikos, Muller and Woodard at first base, senior Stephanie Andrade and Leggett at second, and junior Chantel Worley and sophomore Ashley Casebeer sharing time at third base.
In the outfield, Aloha will call on sophomore Brittany Sanchez in left, Lascelles in center, and Casebeer and senior Ashley McCaw in right, with backup help from sophomore Ally Misi, Leggett and Woodard.
BEAVERTON - The rest of the world may not expect it, but Beaverton plans on playing its way back into the state playoffs in 2007.
The Beavers, led by the return of coach Gary Edwards (he was head coach through 2005 before stepping into an assistant's role for 2006 with Brynnen Guthrie in the head coaching spot) know that they're young and know that they're a dark horse but also know they're talented.
'We'd like to make the playoffs,' Edwards said. 'That's our goal. But it ain't going to be easy.'
The Beavers return just one all-league player, senior pitcher Claire Velaski, but she's the second-best returner in the league at her position and her position is the most important one on the field.
'Claire's been pitching really well this year,' Edwards said. 'Claire's pitched four good games; she should be 4-0.'
The Beavers' youth is reason for some concern however, since the infield includes freshman Hannah Johnson at second, sophomore Maddie Evans at shortstop and freshman Megan Spooner at third. In addition, sophomore Caitlin Ellerbe starts in left field.
'We're getting better every game, but we're just so young,' Edwards said. 'We usually have one bad inning it seems like every game and then we settle down and play well.'
Beaverton has also suffered with the absence of senior Kaylin Marron, who had elbow surgery and won't be back for at least a month. Edwards called Marron his team's best player and said that her eventual return will 'really help us.'
Also due for time in the infield are senior Janelle Winship and Ellerbe at catcher, sophomore Megan Ickler and junior Claudia Mays at pitcher, junior Hannah McMahon at second and senior Jessica Tidrick at third. In the outfield, Ellerbe and senior Rachael Heiselt will go in left, junior Stephanie Lilla is set in center and Mahon in right, along with Johnson, Marron and senior Tori Finlayson.
BEAVERTON - Good teams often talk about reloading from year to year, but can it really be considered reloading if you put all the same bullets back into the same gun?
That's about the biggest question facing Jesuit this year as the Crusaders prepare to defend the Class 4A state title the team won in 2006, and do it with a varsity roster that includes 12 returners, eight of them starters a year ago, including two-time Metro League Pitcher of the Year Paige Hall.
Despite all that, the Crusaders aren't taking anything for granted.
'The kids have been working very hard and they're not cocky,' said Jesuit coach Jim Speciale. 'They don't have that swagger where they think they're the show.'
Hall returns to action after having a small hole in her heart surgically repaired last fall, and looks to be better than ever.
'She's doing well. She's the person you want (in the circle). She competes every day,' Speciale said.
The rest of the returning starters for Jesuit include sophomore Shikara Lowe (first team all-Metro in '06) at catcher, junior Lauren Macy at first base, junior Kelsey VandeBergh at second (second team in '06), junior Ali Junell (second team) at shortstop and senior Ashley Peterson - the team's lone senior - at third base.
'We've been sound defensively so far,' Speciale said. 'I've been very pleased.'
In the outfield, Jesuit will call on freshman Samantha Nelson and sophomore Sara Moore in left, junior Mary Claire Brenner (first team) in center, and Robin Gawlista (a junior transfer from Westview who won first-team honors for the Wildcats) and junior Megan Flier in right. Sophomore Brittany Wolf (second team in '06) will also see time in left field once she returns from a surgically repaired meniscus.
Now, the Crusaders just need to focus on the task at hand.
'We can't let all this talk go to our heads,' Speciale said. 'I know there are teams out there that don't just want to hand us the state trophy. And we haven't even won a Metro championship yet (Jesuit was second last year). We've still got goals to get.'
BEAVERTON - Things are going to look a bit different at Southridge this year, but the Skyhawks plan to be the same old competitive nonetheless.
Southridge opens the 2007 season without two major components of its 2006 Metro League championship - senior pitcher Megan Schaefer (first-team all-Metro in '06) and junior Kayde Schaefer - both elected to turn out for track rather than softball.
Just the same, the Skyhawks have plenty of weapons in their arsenal, led by senior catcher Krista Kelly (first team in '06), senior first baseman Erin Guzy (first team), junior center fielder Megan Rupp (first team), sophomore shortstop Taylor Marchione (second team) and senior pitcher Caitlin Wallace (honorable mention).
Still, coach Wilbur Charters admits things will be different in 2007.
'We're going to have to get better at defense and we're going to have to hit the ball one through nine,' Charters said. 'We may have to outscore people to win, but if that's what we have to do, that's what we'll do.'
Wallace will be solid in the circle, and may eventually get some help from hard-throwing freshman McKenzie Dalthorp once she's fully recovered from a stress fracture in her foot suffered over the winter.
Wallace 'has really good placement and a good changeup,' Charters said. 'She's got to hit her spots … (but) she can really keep people off balance.'
Sophomore Kelsey Oppat will also see time at first base, while sophomores Erica Fitzgerald and Molly Maginnis are battling for time at second, and junior Kaci Cox and sophomore Nicole Frayn will play third. In the outfield, it will be sophomores Amy McRobert and Samantha Kellar in left, Rupp in center and junior Deanna Gende in right along with freshman Taylor Campbell.
As for his team's chances at a playoff berth, Charters remains confident.
'Oh yeah. We'll be there,' he said. 'But we're going to have to play defense.'
CEDAR MILL - This may be Sunset's year.
While the Metro League is tougher than ever, the Apollos, bolstered by eight returning starters and a strong freshman class, believe this is their year to return to the state playoffs for the first time since 2002.
If they make it, it will likely be thanks to the team's core of five seniors - Kit Doeneka, Crissy Watts, Meara Murphy, Kiersten Bailey and Kelley O'Leary.
'They are very excited about this season and very optimistic,' said Sunset coach Spencer Mills. 'We are going to rely on our senior leadership, the five girls that have been with me since I started coaching at Sunset (and) have also spent summer ASA seasons playing for me.'
Watts, a shortstop, won first-team all-Metro honors last year, while O'Leary, a first baseman and outfielder, won a spot on the honorable mention team. Murphy and Doeneka will both play in the outfield while Bailey will share catching duties with sophomore Jessy Downey (who won a berth on the all-league honorable mention team last year).
The Apollos also have an influx of talent at pitcher this year with Meghan Lyons, Amanda Najdek and Anna Miller slated to share the load in the circle.
'We have three pitchers this season, (while) in the past three years we have had one pitcher each season throw every inning for us,' Mills said.
Junior Brittany Boyd will start in center, sophomore Austin Embree will see time at first base, junior Amanda McCoy returns at third after missing most of the '06 season with a broken wrist, while two of the team's eight freshmen will battle for time at second.
ROCK CREEK - With all the attention lavished on 2006 state champion Jesuit and 2006 Metro League champion Southridge, it's easy to forget that Westview was, like those other two, one of four state semifinalists from a year ago and a team that split with Jesuit during the regular season.
The Wildcats return nine players from their '06 squad, and despite the defection of all-league third baseman Robin Gawlista to Jesuit, look very much like a league and state contender again this year.
'I think we'll be in the mix,' said Westview coach Ronda McKenzie. 'They mesh really well as a group and that contributed a lot to our success last year.'
This year's Wildcats will be led by senior catcher Kayla Turner (second team all-Metro in '06), junior shortstop Kellie Studer (second team), junior center fielder Jenna Krogh (second team), junior pitcher Dylan Mizer (honorable mention) and junior first baseman Jordan Hopkins (honorable mention).
'I don't think we'll be quite as fast as we were last year, but we'll have a little more power, a little more depth pitching-wise and a little more maturity,' McKenzie said.
Junior Sarae Abraham will also see time in the pitching circle and should help provide a solid 1-2 punch for the Wildcats.
'Dylan has been looking awesome. She's definitely improved over last year,' McKenzie said, adding that Abraham 'has been a nice surprise. We weren't sure what to expect from her, but so far I've been pleased.'
The infield will include Turner behind the plate, Hopkins at first, sophomores Randi Brown and Jade Kealiinohomoku battling at second, Studer at short and freshman Ashley Garcia ('She's going to be awesome,' McKenzie said) at third.
In the outfield, it will be juniors Brooke Cole and Nicole Chombeau and Kealiinohomoku in left, Krogh in center, and Cole, Chombeau, junior Ashtyn Sauressig or Kealiinohomoku in right.