Braves beat Cascade 2-0 to capture a long-awaited 4A softball championship
by: zack palmer, Banks softball players (from left) Riley Gerlinger, Hannah Vandomelen and Melissa Masters celebrate the final out of the Lady Braves’ 2-0 win over Cascade in the OSAA Class 4A state championship game on Saturday.

CORVALLIS - First there was pure, unadulterated joy. Then there was disbelief. Then came the tears.

Make no mistake, this celebration was a long time coming.

Banks shook off three years of bad luck and close calls and near misses to beat Cascade 2-0 on Saturday in the finals of the Class 4A state softball playoffs, earning the Braves their first state championship trophy since 1999.

'It's just an amazing accomplishment,' said Banks softball coach Jenny Compton. 'These girls really deserve it. It's about dang time. They've been knocking on the door for so long, it's nice to finally have the door open up and let them through.'

Those that have followed this group of Banks athletes over the years already know their track record - state runner-up finishes in softball and volleyball in 2010, plus third-place finishes in volleyball and girls basketball earlier this school year.

The Lady Braves have come so tantalizingly close so many times, and yet they had never hoisted a state championship trophy.

Until now.

'It feels like our destiny. We finally accomplished what we knew we could,' said senior Melissa Masters, who pitched a five-hit shutout in the title game Saturday at the Oregon State Softball Complex.

'There were so many mixed emotions, I didn't know what to feel after the game. I'm just glad we could end it that way. It was nothing but complete joy and happiness.'

Masters and her three senior teammates - Marla Gooding, Chelsie Bunn and Natalie Larsen - did everything in their power to go out on a high note, connecting for three of the Braves' four hits in the title game, driving in both runs, and providing excellent pitching and defense to keep fourth-ranked Cascade (24-5) off the scoreboard.

'All four seniors contributed to the win,' Masters said. 'We couldn't ask for anything more than that.'

The only non-senior to get a hit for the Braves was junior Kaylin Vandomelen, who led off the bottom of the first with a booming triple that one-hopped the fence in right-center field. Two batters later, Masters laid down a safety squeeze bunt that was misplayed at third base, allowing Vandomelen to score and give the Braves an early 1-0 lead.

Gooding came within six inches of making it a 2-0 game in the third inning, banging a double off the fence in left field, but Cascade pitcher Hannah Ganfield worked out of the jam and stranded Gooding on second base.

From there, it was Masters who had to work out of several sticky situations, stranding five Cascade baserunners over the next three innings to preserve the shutout.

In the top of the fourth, Cascade put a runner on second base with one out, but Larsen made a great running catch in right field to end the inning.

In the fifth, Cascade used two singles to put runners on second and third with two outs, but Masters induced an inning-ending pop up to second baseman Riley Gerlinger.

Cascade threatened one more time in the sixth, again putting runners on second and third with two outs, but Morgan Hunter's deep fly ball was run down on the warning track by left fielder Lexi Chung to maintain the Braves' 1-0 advantage.

'I expected (Cascade) to get runners on because they're a very good team,' Masters said. 'But our defense has been playing so well that I wasn't really feeling any pressure. I knew they would back me up and they did.'

Banks (25-4) added an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth, and it was once again the senior class that provided the spark. Masters belted a double to deep center field, Larsen moved her over with a fielder's choice to the right side of the infield, and Bunn stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter.

'I was more nervous because I knew it was probably the only at-bat I would get,' said Bunn, a one-time starter who was relegated to the bench this year after off-season shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum.

'I just wanted to go up there and do something productive and not embarrass myself. It was an incredible feeling knowing that I was able to help my teammates.'

Bunn came through with a clutch RBI single, slapping a ball to the left side of the infield and beating out the throw to first, allowing Masters to score from third and give the Braves a 2-0 lead.

'Once we scored that run in the sixth inning,' Masters said, 'I knew there was no chance we would lose.'

Masters went out and slammed the door, retiring the first two hitters in the seventh inning, then inducing a slow roller back to the mound. She fielded the ball and ran it most of the way to first base before tossing it to Hannah Vandomelen for the final out of the game, sending the Braves into a euphoric celebration.

'It was so surreal, everything that was happening,' Bunn said. 'Everybody was just full of emotion, realizing it was the last game we would ever play together.'

'You can't really describe it,' Larsen said. 'It was pretty cool to go out on top in the last game of our careers. It's been absolutely incredible to have played with these girls for the last four years.'

Added Gooding: 'It was definitely one of the best weekends of my career. It feels pretty awesome. The whole way home I was grinning from ear to ear.'

Masters scattered five hits over seven innings, striking out two batters to earn her 12th win of the season, and she also went 1-for-2 at the plate with a run scored and an RBI.

Gooding was 1-for-3 with a double, Bunn went 1-for-1 with an RBI, and Kaylin Vandomelen was 1-for-3 with a triple and a run scored.

For Compton, the victory was an exclamation point on not just an incredible season, but an amazing four-year run that saw the Braves win 93 total games and four straight Cowapa League titles while posting a 54-6 record in league play.

'It feels like one of the best gifts ever,' she said. 'After all of the time and effort and self-sacrifice we've put in, it's just an incredible feeling.

'The girls were ecstatic after the game. It was emotional for some, but they were all so excited. It was just this feeling of walking on cloud nine.'

Asked if Saturday's win was fitting revenge for the 2010 state title game, when Cascade rallied for two runs in the seventh inning to steal a 2-1 victory and snap Banks' 26-game winning streak, Compton said that it was less about the opponent and more about her team finally reaching the promised land.

'I don't think it mattered who the opponent was,' she said. 'They were back-to-back state champs, so to be able to knock them off was pretty cool, but it wasn't really revenge - it was more like redemption.'

Two days later, Compton said she was still receiving congratulatory text messages and phone calls.

'We've gotten a lot of congratulations, which is really neat,' she said. 'I got one from the Tillamook coaches, and I also got one from Jerry Mettee, who coached here (at Banks) and was my high school coach, so that was really nice.'

Compton, who has coached softball in Banks since she was 19 years old, said the euphoria of the state championship was still sinking in.

'I don't think I ever really thought about what it would feel like,' she said. 'I always knew it was something I wanted to accomplish with this program, and it's unbelievable to think that we accomplished it. I just keep thinking about it, thinking about the fact that we're state champs and how great it feels.

'All weekend I kept saying to my husband, 'Guess what? We're state champs.' He would just laugh at me,' Compton recalled with a chuckle. 'This morning I said to him, 'Guess what? I love you.' He looked at me and said, 'That's not what you were really going to say, was it?''

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