Puyallup High’s run at the winning the Class 4A state softball title last season was — let’s face it — a surprise. But let’s set one thing straight first: The Vikings had the talent to win the state title last season.
The question was could that talent be mature enough to play to its full potential.
The fact that the team, led by former ace Marissa Miller, was able to go beyond itself to win that title was surprising — even to Puyallup coach Tony Botinovich.
"It was, no doubt," Batinovich retorted.
As the surprise wears off, the target is now on Puyallup’s back. Can the reigning champions prove that they can make another title run?
"Everyone’s out to beat us now that we’re defending state champs," Kiana Hess said. "We want the competition."
Even with Miller, The News Tribune’s All-Area player of the year, gone, Puyallup’s defense should be good enough to help the pitching staff while it finds its legs.
"The pitching’s going to come around, but defensively we’re not losing too much," Batinovich said. "I think our hitting is just as strong, and our defense — I mean almost everybody is back."
One of those players returning is Pacific Lutheran University signee Bailey Plumb, a speedster who surprisingly has a step on the competition.
Plumb sets the tone for the Vikings offense sitting at the top of the order. When Puyallup’s senior co-captain steps into the batter’s box, it’s all about her speed. Plumb hit .402 last season, scoring 24 runs and legging out four triples. She was also was a perfect 13 for 13 stealing bases.
"I definitely love having the surprise element (hitting) as a slapper," Plumb said. "I can drag bunt, I can power slap and I just have to keep them on their toes. I think it’s really fun to keep them guessing."
When Plumb was about 10 years old, her father had her switch from hitting just right handed and begin hitting from the left side. The idea behind the move was simple: get a step on defenses.
"My dad switched me over so I could slap and use my speed as a good asset," Plumb said.
Plumb is ambidextrous; she can use her right and left hand — or feet — with equal efficiency. It’s a story Puyallup girls soccer coach Matt White remembers fondly.
"When I first met Bailey, I asked her, ‘Are you right footed or left footed?’ and she said, ‘Yes,’" recalled White with a laugh during Plumb’s national letter signing ceremony last month.
"Bailey causes a lot of teams to make mistakes," Batonivich said. "Defenses will take a step back and then she’ll slap the ball or bunt it and force them to make a play. The Bellarmine game (March 16), she was 1-for-5 but was on base four times — she might be the fastest player in the SPSL.
"But when she wants to, she’ll hit with authority on the right side, too."
With defense an emphasis for Puyallup, the field out in center is small due to Plumb’s speed. Anytime a ball heads to center, it often finds the netting of Plumb’s glove as the senior effortlessly sweeps through the outfield.
Knowing that Plumb will hunt down any ball in the air gives confidence to the Vikings outfield, something co-captain and right-fielder Hess can attest.
"Bailey’s a great leader, and she’s a communicator as well," Hess said. "She works really well in a team setting … she’s a great player."
"I put in a lot of hard work and I’m glad that it’s paid off — I just love the outfield," Plumb said.
Freshman first baseman Sophia Bjerk is the new face on Puyallup’s roster. Being the only freshman on the roster, Batinovich is hoping that her left-handed bat can add balance and power to the lineup.
Her bat is one thing, but it will be her glove work at first that defines her ability on the diamond. And that’s just fine with Botinovich.
"It’s always better to take a hit away," he said.
Still, there’s a lot of pressure taking over a critical position for Class 4A’s reigning state champions.
So is Bjerk intimidated by the pressure put on her?
"It was a little (intimidating) at first, but I think the team has tried to make me feel like I’m not a freshman," Bjerk said. "I’ve played with a lot of them before, so I know how they play. It’s easy to adjust (defensively at first)."
After the nonleague games in Puyallup’s schedule, other players have taken notice of Bjerk’s work ethic and feel she’ll be just fine.
"Sophia is going to help us a lot this year," Hess said. "She’s worked really hard every day at first … her bat’s going to make us all that more dangerous."
If Bjerk can continue grow as a player, Puyallup may have found a gem at first.