By Robert Husseman • Sports Editor • 

Keeping their eyes on the ball

If the McMinnville softball team is to better its 8-17 finish from 2013, it must bridge the divide.

Not that there are factions within the team. Just those that pertain to age and grade level.

The Grizzlies’ top two pitchers this season are freshmen Kaleigh Scanlon and Sydney Reeser. A third freshman, Sydni Dix, has locked down the third base position in the early season.

The freshmen must learn to coexist and coalesce with a group of seniors – Jacinda Swiger, Kristin King, Kamrie Hoggard and Kaylee McManus among them – who played significant innings in helping Mac to a 5-9 conference record in 2013. (Well, all except Swigert, who has recovered from an anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus tear in her left knee.)

“They get nervous,” McMinnville coach Courtney Seifert said. “Support from the upperclassmen has been key in making them feel comfortable.”

Swiger, Hoggard and junior Sam Hensley comprised an experienced outfield that packs power at the plate. Junior catcher Makayla Khatewoda, in her third year as a varsity starter, is a player Seifert has been able to lean on.

“Kay-Kay’s awesome,” Seifert said. “She’s vocal, full of energy, always up.”

The Grizzlies are not especially deep in pitching; Seifert expressed a desire to “ride (Scanlon) as long as we can ride her,” with Reeser and Hoggard willing to step in as needed. How potent the offense will be is also something of a wild card, dependent upon how quickly the five freshmen on the varsity roster (Gillian Bonnett and Emily Deyoung also included) can adjust.

“Those freshmen can hold their own,” Seifert said. “They’re certainly not there by mistake. They have the ability and confidence to hit live pitchers.”

At Yamhill-Carlton, Molly Smith is healthy and ready to roll, and the Tigers will ride her right arm wherever she can take them.

Smith, a pitcher who has signed to play for the University of Memphis next season, spent much of 2013 on the shelf. Y-C finished second in the Class 4A Cowapa League to Banks – the eventual state champion – and lost in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs to Sutherlin.

Smith is far from the only returning starter. Junior Emily Drevdahl “upped her game a lot defensively” at first base, according to Tigers coach John Keuhnel, and will be the secondary arm in case Smith cannot pitch.

“She could pitch for any other team in the league,” Keuhnel said.

Third baseman Taylor Stepp, second baseman Delaney Ogden and sophomore shortstop Ember Armstrong make up the rest of what Keuhnel considers a strong defensive infield, and returning all-Cowapa League selection Madisyn Babcock will patrol center field for the Tigers.

“Top to bottom I have a pretty good group of kids,” Keuhnel said. “I think this is the first year I haven’t had to teach somebody how to actually throw the ball.”

With Smith back in the fold, Yamhill-Carlton is not secretive about its desire for the school’s first state championship in softball.

“Their personal expectations are the same as coaches,” Keuhnel said.

“We want to win the league and move forward into state championships and go a long ways with it. It’s setting really good to go up to the top.”

Dayton has established itself as the team to beat in the Class 3A West Valley League. The Pirates have a dangerous combination of youth and talent, losing just two players from the Class 3A state runner-up team of 2013.

“They’re all excited about the season and all have high expectations,” Pirates coach Rob Umbenhower said. “The goal is to take each game and look at it as, that’s the day.”

After losing all-league pitcher Jamie Chenea to graduation, junior Sierra Ray has stepped into the circle as the team’s primary option. The other half of the battery is catcher Cooper Ringnalda, and juniors Teddi Hop, Rachael Fluke and Katelyn Sutton, among others, return to provide the Pirates with power. Kylie Hill is the lone freshman starting for Dayton; she will man third base this season.

At Willamina, Jill Coblentz steps into the circle to take over primary pitching duties for a team that finished third in the West Valley League in 2013.

“We’re gonna ride that horse all year,” Bulldogs coach Scott Vang said. “We’re not gonna fool anybody. Here we come.”

Willamina brings a mix of experience – including senior catcher Kyra Toney – and young talent – sophomores Nikia Mooney and Maryssa Myers have emerged as consistent contributors for Vang – that Vang believes could effectively challenge Dayton for the league title.

“Everybody else is chasing them,” Vang said. “We’re all down there looking up. We all want one spot. They’ve earned it. Gotta knock em off.”

Amity put together a 15-7 record in 2013 but struggled in WVL play, going 4-6 in coach Don Zapata’s first year. The Warriors return a pair of all-league players in catcher Delaney Cruz and infielder Anna Zapata, and – like McMinnville – have an impact freshman pitcher in Shayla Pendergraft, whom Zapata expects to pitch the bulk of available innings.

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