When Bonney Lake High School softball coach Andrew Sage was looking over his roster before the 2016 spring season, a couple things stood out.
He noticed he didn’t have a lot of seniors but had a talented freshman class. In particular, Brooke Nelson, Hailee Hagins, Gabby Jones and Shelby Welfringer.
“We sat down and said, ‘These guys are really talented — let’s just grow them now.’ ”
Fast-forward to spring of 2019. The “core four” for the Panthers have all been four-year starters, won the Class 3A state title in 2018 and have only lost four home games in their entire careers — three of which came during their freshman season. The last time they lost at home was in April 2017.
“You look at their body of work as a whole, they’ve been really consistent,” Sage said.
It starts with Nelson, who was named The News Tribune’s All-Area player of the year in 2018, as well as the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year. As a junior, the UW signee struck out 306 batters and hit 21 home runs. She threw six no-hitters and at one point, struck out 24 consecutive batters, becoming just the second player in national history to accomplish the feat, according to The National Federation of State High School Associations.
But ask Nelson about her individual accolades, and she’s quick to deflect credit to her teammates.
“I was just proud of my ability to stay calm and trust my teammates, knowing that each and every one of them could make plays with every ball,” Nelson said.
To Sage, Nelson’s unselfishness and lack of ego is what makes her unique, and a joy to coach.
“You have a combination of a kid that’s extremely physically talented but also very humble, very hard working and always trying to figure out what they can do to get better,” Sage said. “I think her greatest attribute is that she lifts everyone else up around her. I think that’s her No. 1 strength and attribute and what she brings to this program.”
If a teammate lays down a good bunt, Nelson will be the first one to congratulate them. Someone hits a sacrifice fly? Nelson springs out of the dugout like they just hit a home run.
“I think she’s been a great role model that way,” Sage said. “Your talent is one thing, but it’s your character, your work ethic and how you interact with your teammates.”
Of course, it helps that Nelson shares such a familiarity with her teammates, especially the other three seniors who have been four-year starters for the Panthers.
Like catcher Hagins, who has been a steady presence behind the plate for Nelson and Gabby Jones, the team’s No. 2 pitcher.
“Being able to grow together for four years, we almost speak the same language, in a way,” Nelson said of her rapport with Hagins. “She’s thinking the same thing as me, a lot of the time.”
That familiarity has led to plenty of wins for the Panthers over the past four years, and has been clearly evident to Sage.
“Good pitchers struggle when they don’t have someone back there that they can trust,” Sage said. “I think Hailee being able to handle (Nelson) no matter what day it is or where she’s at, has just been able to help her relax and throw better, because there’s a trust there.”
The four seniors all cite their communication level with each other as the biggest reason for their success in high school.
“We all feel comfortable with each other and there’s trust within one another,” Hagins said. “With Gabby, Shelby, Brooke and I, we all know what to expect from each other.”
That means enjoying the fun times — like when the team is line dancing before a big game to a Shania Twain song — but also when the going gets rough.
“We can be goofy together all the time, but we know when to focus and get it together,” Welfinger said. “We know how to keep each other in check.”
Bonney Lake is off to a 6-2 start this year, with a 4-0 mark in the Class 3A Pierce County League. Above all else, the players prioritize keeping a fun and loose atmosphere.
“Practices are really loose for us,” Jones said. “It’s a more laid back atmosphere this year.”
Even Sage gets in on the fun sometimes, busting out a few dance moves during practice.
A superstar player, a strong, experienced veteran supporting cast and a fun-loving atmosphere: Could it all add up to a state championship repeat for the Panthers? That’s looking a bit too far ahead, they say.
“Last year was last year and as a team, it’s something we’ve agreed that we’re going to put in the past,” Nelson said. “It’s not something we even think about anymore. We’re focused on the next pitch, whether you’re on defense about to field a ground ball, or you’re up to bat with a 2-2 count. Winning that pitch that you’re in right at that moment is the biggest thing for us.”