One year after winning a long-awaited state softball championship, Banks reloads with another talented team intent on winning it all

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: ZACK PALMER - Banks senior Kaylin Vandomelen cheers from the dugout along with teammates Lexi Chung and Riley Gerlinger during last year's Class 4A state softball finals against Cascade.When asked if her team’s mindset would be any different this season after winning a long-awaited Class 4A state championship last spring, Banks softball coach Jenny Compton was pretty clear.

“We’ve had a target on our backs for several years now, so it’s not a whole lot different this year,” she said. “I think it’s something we’ve become accustomed to. With the success these kids have had — not just in softball, but in volleyball and basketball — I think they’re kind of comfortable with it. I think they’ll be able to handle it quite well.”

The Lady Braves have handled everything else that’s come their way in the last three years, ranging from a state runner-up finish in 2010 to an early playoff exit in 2011 and finally their breakthrough performance last year, beating Cascade to capture the school’s first state softball championship since 1999.

While that victory was undeniably sweet, Compton and the rest of the Banks coaching staff must deal with the loss of four irreplaceable seniors from that team, not to mention the pressure of being the defending state champions.

But, like Compton said, this group has handled pressure with remarkable aplomb.

Gone are seniors Melissa Masters and Marla Gooding, both of whom are playing Division I college softball this year, plus fellow seniors Chelsie Bunn and Natalie Larsen. That group may have been the nucleus of the Lady Braves’ state title team, but several key players are back this year, including senior Kaylin Vandomelen, the Class 4A State Player of the Year as a freshman in 2010, plus rising stars Riley Gerlinger, Lexi Chung and Courtney Engeseth.

“We’re going to be looking to those seniors for leadership, and I think this will provide a really great opportunity for them to step up,” Compton said. “We’ve got to keep our focus on one game at a time, and not get distracted thinking about where we want to be at the end of the season.

“I think it’s going to be a fun year. I think we’re going to have a really good season.”

Vandomelen split pitching duties with Masters and Gooding during the regular season last year, but she will get the lion’s share of the innings in 2013.

“Kaylin is probably going to have a more prominent role on the mound this year,” Compton said. “She’ll be throwing more of of the innings and be supported by a couple of other pitchers.”

Gerlinger is a three-year starter at second base, while Engeseth returns at third base and Chung is back in the outfield.

Other returners include sophomores Hannah Van Domelen (first base) and Madison Soper (third base), both of whom started last year, plus juniors Molly Hammond and Taylor Herb.

One issue Compton will need to monitor is the team’s health, with Gerlinger suffering a sprained ankle and Chung separating her shoulder during basketball season. This on top of losing starting catcher Aubrey Rue to a season-ending knee injury.

Rue will serve as the team’s manager this year, while Chung and Gerlinger work their way back to 100 percent.

“We’re just going to be real cautious with them and be sure to not rush them back,” Compton said. “We can’t afford to rush them back and have them get hurt even worse.”

Compton knows that all eyes will be on her team this year as the Braves shoot for their fourth consecutive Cowapa League championship and possibly their second state title. But she also knows that this team can handle the lofty expectations.

“Whether people think we’re favored to repeat or not, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “What matters is focusing on each game and making sure you execute every time you’re out there. Having finally won a state title definitely helps, because I think they’ll be able to handle that pressure.”

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