Brandon Walker could talk about this White River High School softball team taking the next step.
The Hornets have been to the state tournament six consecutive years, which is tied for the third longest active streak in Class 2A with Lynden and Sequim (Ellensburg and W.F. West have each made it 10 years in a row). But no state title.
Walker, though, thought back to his first days as White River’s coach.
“The girls didn’t even know we played seven innings when we first started,” Walker said. “They walked off the field one of the first games after five innings. They thought it was over.”
Walker says junior shortstop Megan Vandegrift, who committed to the University of Washington before the start of her freshman season, is the best player he’s ever coached. Senior Ashley Long is the best catcher he’s coached. And junior Maddie Pipitone might be the best pitcher in the 4A South Puget Sound League’s Mountain division this year.
The Hornets have a fast outfield, a strong defense and a potent, but inexperienced, batting order.
How excited is Walker for the season?
“Super excited,” Walker laughed. “I just want to play some games. I want to get going.”
All that has slowed the Hornets down so far is the rain. They had practiced outside only three times and had two games rained out before opening the season with a 2-1 win against Fife last week.
It was White River’s first game since going 0-2 at Carlon Park in Selah during the 2A state tournament last season . a year after reaching the state championship game, losing 3-2 to W.F. West.
So Long got to work organizing offseason team practices.
Walker’s had some good catchers in his five years as the Hornets’ coach — Sam Mitchell and Brooke Paulson were both league MVPs — but Long is like another coach.
“Nothing gets past her,” Vandegrift said. “She’ll dig in the dirt for a ball and then throw out the runner. It’s scary.”
“She definitely has one of the strongest arms I’ve ever seen,” Pipitone said.
Long also hit .467 at the plate last year with three home runs and 23 RBIs.
But Walker says it’s probably what she does off the field that has made the most impact.
“She’s been a role model for everybody,” Walker said. “This is what we do — we are ready for the season before it starts and that’s because Ashley was there throughout the summer and most of the winter. She really stepped up.”
Long and Pipitone worked on their catcher-pitcher chemistry all offseason. Long calls all of the pitches, so it was vital they get on the same page. It worked well enough two years ago when Long caught for TNT All-Area pitcher Kayla Smith, who now pitches at Central Washington University.
Against Fife this year, Pipitone allowed one hit and no earned runs in six innings.
“Maddie has improved so much,” Long said. “Speed, pitches, more movement — and I think she can only get better.
“I was catching her at practice and I was like, ‘Maddie, this is crazy.’ You can definitely tell she’s gotten a lot better.”
Pipitone doesn’t need to strike out every batter — she just needs them to hit a ground ball to shortstop.
That’s Vandegrift’s territory. She committed to UW the winter of her freshman year and last season hit .515 with three homers and 20 stolen bases, making her a first-team all-league selection.
“If they hit it to the left side of the field, we should be all right,” Walker chuckled.
Walker played second base and outfield when he attended White River, before becoming an assistant softball coach at Mount Rainier and then made his way back to Buckley.
But He doesn’t dare compare his skills in the middle infield to that of Vandegrift’s.
“Not even comparable,” Walker said. “I don’t like to talk about how I played — I coach way better than I ever played.”
Walker said it’s hard to believe White River could have a player like her — a pint-sized shortstop her teammate used to call “Smiley” — from where this program started. The Hornets have been to the state tournament every year since 2010 after going 21 years without a state appearance. The sport was called Slow Pitch when they went to state from 1984-87 and in 1989.
But now that the foundation has been laid, White River is hoping to take the next step and bring home that big state hardware.
“This is what we do now,” Walker said. “We expect to be in the state tournament. I expect to be there. Our goal is to get farther and farther, though — it’s not just to make it there. We want to play our best and see what happens.”
“We’ve lost a lot of really good players and I think that is on people’s minds,” Long said. “But at the same time this is a completely different team, and if we focus on being ourselves, we can be a state contender.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677