Things are finally turning around for the Emerald Ridge High softball team this season. With the get-to-know-stage now over, the Jaguars expect to compete and make another run at a league title.
"At the beginning of the season, they’re trying to figure out how to play as a team," Emerald Ridge coach Derick Nelons said. "But then about six to seven games in, the light switch went on, and then we’re right there."
After starting the season with a 12-0 loss to Camas High on March 13, Emerald Ridge just couldn’t get it going in the beginning stages, struggling to a 1-5 overall record.
But after rifling off three strong victories and improving to 4-5 overall (3-1 league), the Jaguars now sit tied in second with Bethel (6-4, 3-1) in the Class 4A SPSL South Division.
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"If we can finish in the top three, then we can go on to districts and then onto state," Nelons said. "They feel confident now."
During that first game of the season against Camas, Emerald Ridge got a taste of what it dished out for years when now-Portland State pitcher Meagan Hendricks was dominating from the circle for the Jags.
Camas starter Katie Schroeder is the new ace pitcher in the state. Her start against Emerald Ridge back in March was very much reminiscent of Hendricks’ routine outing. Turnaround is fair play.
"We kind of got a taste of how other teams felt when we threw Meagan out there," Nelons joked.
Now heading into league play, the team’s focus has sharpened, and with three consecutive league wins, the Jaguars see their chance to grab another league title.
"We knew coming into league (play) we knew that we had to work hard — there wasn’t going to be that one strong team," Kayla Musche said. "I think that our team will work well together."
It’s been two years since Emerald Ridge has had a big game pitcher who performed at the level of Hendricks. Instead of trying to replace her, Nelons has gone with a staff by committee that includes captains Tinli Petty and Alyssa LeBlanc.
"We don’t have that one ace, but with Tinli and myself, we all kind of have to work as a community," LeBlanc said. "We’re alright. We’ll be good."
The faces in the circle might be different, but the one behind the mask at catcher is the same: Hope Jones.
With three starting pitchers penciled in for Emerald Ridge, there needs to be familiarity behind the plate. And this season, Jones is driving force for a team trying to keep up with rival and division favorite Puyallup (9-3, 6-0).
"Hope is amazing — she has improved so much," LeBlanc said. "She saves us and is one of the keys to this team."
Finding a voice
Any young player who catches a major senior pitching prospect doesn’t usually find the ability to speak their mind. That was the case for Jones when it came to Hendricks.
"Meagan was so much of a vocal leader, I just didn’t want to speak over her," Jones said. "She was the boss."
Now it’s Jones turn to be the boss as the senior has evolved into everything a catcher needs to be: a natural leader.
It’s taken some time, but Jones is now there.
"She lets us know what we need to throw or how the defense needs to be," Petty said. "Or she’ll say something random that’s funny … it keeps us loose."
With three pitchers under her control, it was time for Jones to take more of a lead with Emerald Ridge softball. It’s more about pride at this point for the Jaguar.
After all, her close friend, Bailey Plumb, is coming off a state title run with rival Puyallup, one year after her team, Emerald Ridge, was favored to win it all.
"I am a little jealous that Bailey won the state title last year. I’m happy for her as her friend, but it just makes me want it more," Jones said. "That could have been us two years ago. We just didn’t finish the job when it counted."
Not just that, but the statement made by two Puyallup schools winning back-to-back state titles would have been great all on its own.
"Having us a top team a couple of years ago and Puyallup winning state just shows we can play out here," Jones added.