North Marion ready for new beginning
Last year was a tough one for the North Marion softball program.
After qualifying for state playoffs or a play-in round in each of the previous six seasons, the Huskies bottomed out in 2017, winning just one game and finishing last in the Oregon West Conference standings.
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, this year's team enters the spring athletic season with the determination to get back to being a perennial playoff team.
"I've got a young squad, but they're super eager and very coachable," said head coach Jonathan Santos, who takes over the program from former head coach Rachel Camp.
The manager of the Canby Rebels 18U traveling exposure team, Santos joined the Huskies this season as part of a fresh start for the program, which features nine freshman on the varsity roster, five of whom are starting this season.
Although the lack of varsity experience leaves the Huskies without the built-in knowledge that comes with having a veteran-heavy roster, going with a straight youth movement has its advantages too, particularly with a new coach coming into the program with his own expectations.
"They're very young and don't really have any expectations from the previous season," Santos said. "They are very smart kids, so they want all the knowledge we have. They're like sponges. They absorb."
Of course the team's rookies aren't heading into the season alone. Four members of last year's team return to the Huskies this year in leadership positions, led by First Team All-Conference outfielder Samantha Baylie.
The junior centerfielder was a member of the Rebels under Santos and has been touring around the West Coast in the offseason and working on her game. Her existing relationship with Santos combined with her experience as a member of the Rebels and the Huskies puts Baylie into a leadership position, which Santos said she has embraced.
"She understands the expectations, which helps dramatically with her being a leader," Santos said. "She's basically helped keep it going and had a lot of put outs as far as centerfield goes. She's definitely a force to be reckoned with."
The Huskies' other returning all-conference player, senior infielder Ally Umbenhower, barely had enough time to change out of her basketball uniform before the softball team's first game of the season.
Umbenhower helped lead the basketball team to a third place finish at state on March 10, two days before the softball team's opening game at Valley Catholic on March 12.
"She's doing great just coming out of basketball," Santos said. "The leadership she brings to the table is great."
Senior outfielder Melinda Chappell and junior infielder Emma Beachy round out the returning veterans. Beachy is making the switch from third base to first base this season while working as the team's cleanup hitter, and has performed admirably through the first week of the season.
The Huskies opened the season with a 31-18 victory over Valley Catholic on March 12, then followed with their home opener against the 5A Central Panthers on March 14.
Though the Huskies lost that game 20-6, they stayed close to the Panthers throughout the game, trailing 9-5 heading into the sixth inning before Central pulled away.
North Marion finished the week with its most excited game, a 2-1 victory over the Astoria Fishermen that was finished on a walk-off single from freshman pitcher Jasmine Calkins.
After giving up a run to the Fisherman in the opening inning, Calkins and the North Marion defense held Astoria scoreless for the remainder of the game. Down 1-0 heading into the final inning, Chappell dropped a bunt down the third base line that she turned into a run after Astoria twice overthrew the ball trying to get her out.
With the game tied, Baylie singled and was moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Umbenhower before Calkins drove her in for the win. In addition to the game-winning RBI, Calkins also finished the game with a one-hitter, which Santos attributed to a team-wide effort on defense.
"Hats off to her," Santos said. "Between our freshman on the mound and our freshman behind the plate (Carter Crawford) did phenomenal.
"Our defense definitely did a lot of work. Anything that got put in play, they got out."
The Huskies had a tough draw this past week, playing a pair of road games against two traditional softball powers in Gladstone and Banks, who met last year in the state quarterfinals.
North Marion dropped their game against Gladstone on March 19 by a 14-4 margin and followed with a 31-1 loss to Banks on March 20. But with a 2-3 record through the first two weeks of the season, the Huskies have already surpassed their win total from 2017 and plan on getting a lot more in 2018.
"The sky's the limit," Santos said. "Our goal this season is to win eight games and do something in league. Possibly in this season, but in the next. That's my end results. I want to make playoffs."
North Marion's season continues this week. The team was scheduled to host its annual spring break tournament, with back-to-back games on Wednesday against Blanchet at 1 p.m. and Woodburn at 5 p.m. The Huskies follow with a trip down to Cottage Grove on Thursday and return home on Saturday for a noon game against Scappoose.