In the center of every great softball team stands a great pitcher – reliable, durable and difficult to hit.
Yamhill County’s softball play in 2014 was marked by its pitching talent, and two stood above the rest. Molly Smith of Yamhill-Carlton and Sierra Ray of Dayton lifted their teams among the state’s best, and for that they will share the News-Register’s All-Valley Player of the Year award.
Yamhill-Carlton senior Molly Smith began the season signed, sealed and delivered to the University of Memphis, where she will play for the Tigers softball team.
This summer, Smith is making money when she can, playing with the Oregon Blaze traveling softball club, and confronting the logistical challenges of uprooting her life in Yamhill and settling down in Memphis. Her dorm room is reserved, and she and her roommate – Tigers incoming freshman pitcher Katie Brignac – have been exchanging messages, getting to know each other before the reality of college life sets in.
“I’m extremely excited,” Smith says. “It’s going to be something way new to be on my own.”
Smith, the 2014 News-Register All-Valley Softball Co-Player of the Year, leaves Y-C as one of the most decorated female athletes in school history. She has been named Class 4A Cowapa League Pitcher of the Year in all four seasons. She has earned a first-team all-state nod in each of her four seasons. With her blazing fastball and increasing comfort in a variety of pitches – Y-C coach John Kuehnel could call as many as six different pitches in a game – Smith gave batters nightmares.
She struck out 189 batters in 100 innings pitched, walking 18, and accrued a 0.63 earned-run average in 100 innings pitched. Smith was also a serious threat in the batters box, hitting .479 with four home runs and a .753 slugging percentage.
With Smith in the circle, the Tigers were not shy about their goal of a Cowapa League title and a Class 4A state championship. Making the players fit together organically took time and nurturing.
“We got a bunch of new freshmen and we didn’t have a JV team so it was a lot of team bonding and welcoming in the new freshmen,” Smith says. “(Preseason workouts) were really good for us. A lot of us improved – we got a lot better hitting-wise this year.”
The Tigers won their first six games, including three during a week-long road trip to California. (“We really came together as a team,” Smith says, “and I think that trip started everything off for the rest of the season.”) Then came Banks, Y-C’s rival in the Cowapa League, who dealt the Tigers their first loss, 3-1, on April 15.
It was a disappointment, but it galvanized Y-C. The Tigers won their next six games before facing the Braves again, in a doubleheader in Yamhill. Y-C took care of business on May 2, winning the first game, 3-2 (nine innings), and the second game, 7-5.
“The next two games we just relaxed,” Smith says. “We didn’t worry about who they were and we just played our game. Everybody did the best we could do. We had all of our crowd – you could feel that. We were comfortable there.”
Y-C didn’t lose another game the rest of the regular season, claiming the Cowapa League title and the No. 1 seed in the Class 4A state playoffs. However, the Tigers were shocked in their first-round state playoff game by Mazama, 3-0, on May 28.
“You could tell – talk in the dugout wasn’t as loud,” Smith says. “We were all excited and wanting to play, and it just didn’t come together that game. It just happened to be the last game.”
It was a difficult end to the season, but far from the end of Smith’s career. Her new league, Conference USA, figures to provide plenty of challenges – and plenty of opportunities.
“Now I know I can’t just blow it past anybody,” she says. “It’s going to be, definitely working on all my spins and location.”
Early in the 2014 season, Dayton junior Sierra Ray had a bad game within the circle. She wasn’t as sharp as she had been, not quite as focused.
In need of a sounding board, Ray turned to Jamie Chenea, a close friend and the primary pitcher on Dayton’s 2013 softball team that advanced to the Class 3A state championship game.
“I had her come over and we just talked about it,” Ray says. “I’ve always looked up to her and asked her advice for everything. It’s been really cool getting to go through everything with her.”
Chenea, the 2013 Class 3A State Player of the Year, was a hard act to follow. Ray, the 2014 News-Register All-Valley Softball Co-Player of the Year, made the task look almost easy. After playing most of the 2013 season in the field, Ray entered the spotlight as the primary pitcher on a Dayton softball team that had high expectations of itself.
She handled the responsibilities with grace, and the Pirates responded in kind. Dayton was largely untouchable in Class 3A West Valley League play, going 10-0 (21-5 overall). Its 308 runs scored in 26 games well outpaced the No. 2 team in that category at the 3A level; Pleasant Hill compiled 265 runs in 28 games.
“I kind of slipped from that all-around player mindset to a pitching mindset,” Ray says. “I just thought of what I needed to do for the team and just worked a lot on my pitches and my speed. I used to joke around with (Chenea), when she graduated, ‘You were my personal pitching coach.’”
Under the tutelage of Larry Nichols – the former McMinnville softball coach – Dayton softball great Cagney Ringnalda and Chenea, Ray entered high school softball with significant refinement. She posted a 1.3 earned-run average in 2014, striking out 134 batters and walking 40.
“I’m not the biggest person there is,” Ray says. “I’m not a 6-foot-1, 190-pound (Division I) pitcher. I’m not as powerful as a lot of people are. So to make up for power, I have to have a lot of movement on the pitches I throw.
“I focused on just getting down on my pitches and spots. I have power, but I knew that I was going to need to work on being more explosive and that kind of stuff.”
Ray helped her own cause at the plate, standing out on a prolific Pirates squad. Entering Dayton’s June 3 Class 3A state semifinal game against Rainier, Ray held a .414 batting average and posted an on-base percentage of .500 and a slugging percentage of .770.
That game against the Columbians, held at Jim Connelly Field, would be the last game Dayton would play in 2014. Ray would allow a single earned run, but it was all Rainier needed in a 1-0 victory. The Columbians would go on to win their second consecutive state championship.
“It’s just hard because we should (have) been at that (state championship) game,” Ray said. “To think of how well we’ve played these last three seasons, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. To be one of the last teams playing the last three seasons, that’s such an honor.”