Low interest doesn’t usually strike a team coming off back-to-back state tournament appearances, but when Stadium High School’s softball players met for their first practice under new coach Ed Wells back in February, there weren’t enough of them.
Only seven girls turned out. Only two sets of parents appeared for the first team meeting.
“It was truly heart-breaking,” said junior left-handed pitcher McKenna Braegelmann. “We’d had a solid 15-player roster the last couple of seasons.”
Washington Interscholastic Activities Association rules permit athletes to compete for other nearby schools if the school they attend doesn’t offer a sport. “Nobody wanted to start looking for another place to play,” said Braegelmann. “We wanted to represent Stadium.”
Fortunately, after a few days of putting up recruiting posters around school and contacting girls they knew had played before – and some who hadn’t – the Tigers had enough to begin what has turned out to be a successful season.
Stadium is 20-3 heading into Friday’s opening game of the Class 3A state tournament at noon against Edmonds-Woodway at the Regional Athletic Complex in Lacey. The Tigers’ only losses have been to defending state champion Bonney Lake (twice) in Pierce County League play and in the West Central/Southwest B-District championship game to Mountain View.
The near-miss for the district title – Stadium and Mountain View were tied 2-2 heading into the fifth inning, when the Thunder broke through for four runs and a 6-2 win – was a step forward, said Wells.
“We learned we can trust the way we do things, the concept of playing one pitch at a time so things don’t get too big,” he said. “We learned we can play through a little bit of pressure and anxiety.”
Braegelmann says while the Tigers concentrate on “winning every inning,” they always make room for fun.
“You don’t want playing the game to be actual work. We keep it fun. We’re always smiling and dancing,” she said.
In never hurts when a team’s most accomplished players set the tone. Braegelmann, already verbally committed to NCAA Division I University of San Diego, tries to keep a positive vibe on the mound, smiling whether ahead or behind. And, she says, Western Washington-bound senior shortstop Mikayla Liljenberg, hitting .469 for the season, is the ringleader.
“Mikayla’s crazy. She has so much energy and is always able to share her love for playing the game,” Braegelmann said. “We have a real sense of playing for each other, not just for ourselves.”
Wells praises his team’s strength up the middle, with battery mates Braegelmann and junior catcher Meri McElligott, a .422 hitter, joined by Liljenberg, second baseman Alexys Newman, a slapper who checks in at .429, and senior center fielder Kate Nelson.
Two other Tigers are hitting better than .400, senior third baseman and occasional pitcher Samantha Coach (.403) and freshman first baseman Rylie Jutte (.479).
But Braegelmann is the centerpiece both in the circle and at the plate.
“McKenna has a true out pitch in her rise ball,” Wells said. “A lot pitchers throw a rise that fades a little to the left or right, but she has an ‘elevator’ ball that comes in straight up. She throws hard, she has accuracy.”
Braegelmann combines her rise with its opposite, a drop ball, and is working to add more changeups to the mix. She sees intangibles as another key to her 1.33 earned run average.
“I’m focused, I’m intense, but I smile a lot. You can’t tell if I’m having a good day or a bad day just from looking at me,” she said.
Although she’ll throw an occasional breaking ball to left-handed hitters, Braegelmann doesn’t think too much about being a lefty, but Wells thinks it does give her an advantage.
“You don’t see many left-handed pitchers in softball who are overpowering like McKenna is. You’ll see some who throw a lot of off-speed stuff,” he said. Braeglemann has clocked a college-worthy 63 miles per hour on the gun.
“Hitters are looking at everything backward and, unless a team has someone just like her, they can’t practice against it.”
Oh, and by the way, Braegelmann can swing the bat, too, hitting a team high .583 with nine home runs, including two in a game against state-bound Garfield and another off Bonney Lake ace Brooke Nelson, a University of Washington commit.
“She’s a power hitter who hits it hard and she hits to all fields,” Wells said.
Braegelmann says she’s developed her bat speed from a lot of work off a tee and has strength from weight training. She also believes being a pitcher helps her at the plate.
“I can see the spin and understand what the pitcher is trying to do.”