After a winless 2013, the Gervais softball team wants to advance to league playoffs

The Gervais softball team is ready to go. In fact, they were ready a month ago.

After the team struggled through a tough transition year in 2013 when the team lost all 19 regular season games, including 17 games by 10 or more runs, the Cougars were anxious to get back on the field this spring and prove their worth.

“There’s definitely a lot more energy and excitement this year,” said head coach Kyle Buse. “We had girls probably a month out asking, ‘When can we going to get going? When are we opening the gyms? When can we start practicing?’”

Much like last year, the Cougars are entering the 2014 season with a very young team. The softball team boasts just two seniors this year – Maria Kirk and Maddie McPherson. Of the 22 athletes in the program, 11 are sophomores, including four that were scheduled to start in the infield for Gervais’ season-opener Monday at Jefferson High School.

“We are pretty young still,” said Buse. “We do have some inexperience, but we’ve got a lot of players that are athletes, so we’re replacing some of the athletes we lost.”

Some of those sophomore athletes are returning starters from a year ago, such as third baseman Zina Oral and utility player Tiana Jaramillo. Others are new recruits like Jelayna Bastidas and Caitlin Davidson, who are new to the team this year but are expected to get significant playing time due to their athleticism.

“Those two athletes are going to help us,” said Buse. “They’re both inexperienced when it comes to softball, but both will be on the varsity roster and will be starting for us in our first game.”

Aside from the two seniors, the Cougars’ other elder statesmen are returning pitcher Emily Saalfeld and outfielder Cassidy Rush, both juniors.

“(Emily) put in a lot of time over the offseason,” said Buse. “She’s coming back very determined.”

Saalfeld took on a heavy load as the team’s primary pitcher in 2013, often pitching four or more times a week between varsity and JV play. Buse is hoping to dial back that this season in hopes that it allows the junior to improve her accuracy and consistency.

“I think she did a lot last year,” he said. “This year we’re hoping to keep her a bit fresher and limit her to three days a week. In practice, she’s been showing much better consistency.”

Rush will come in from the outfield at times to spell her on the mound, as will Emma Bustamante, the team’s primary JV pitcher last season.

On offense, Buse wants to see his team improve and fill the void left by Amy Stott and Maya Jaramillo, the team’s top two hitters in 2013.

“I am really coming in with that mindset that we need to improve our hitting,” he said. “The time we’ve put in during the last two weeks, the girls have really picked up the mechanics and picked up the lingo we’re using. I think we’re showing a lot of signs of improvement that I can’t wait to see this week.”

On defense, Buse wants to see the team play more reflexively. Instead of figuring out where to throw the ball, his goal is to get the team to the point where the Cougars react to plays much more intuitively.

“It’s not going to be a decision-making factor,” said Buse. “It’s going to be a situation of, ‘I’ve done this before in practice. There’s no decision to be made. I know the situation and it’s going to be an automatic response.’”

Even with all the excitement coming into the season, Buse is keeping expectations within reason. His first goal is to simply get that first win.

“We went 0-19 last year and if we can come out and at least get that one win and show the girls that we are capable of winning, it’s going to be a sign of moving in the right direction,” he said. “So we’re not just saying it and they’re hoping to believe it, we’re going to have that evidence this year and I think we’re going to be able to get over that hump.”

After that, Buse has his eyes set on a league playoff berth. With just six teams in the West Valley Conference, only one team will be left out of the league playoffs, and Buse is aiming to make sure the Cougars are not that one team. Heading into the season, Gervais and Sheridan will likely be the two squads battling for that fifth and final playoff spot, adding extra emphasis to when the two teams meet on April 18 and May 13.

“We have those couple games scheduled on our calendar,” said Buse. “If we come out and take care of business against that one team, we’ll be in a position where we can make a league playoff run.”

With so many young players on the Cougars, Buse looks at this team with a two- to three-year window in mind.

Gervais has a chance to build some success this year before the team moves to the PacWest Conference in 2015 to face a completely new set of teams and challenges.

“I can feel it with the girls. We’re gaining that excitement and we’re building it,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll gain some success this year and then hit the ground running next year going into the new league.”

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