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Cougars want to challenge for playoffs by finishing top two in the PacWest standings

PHIL HAWKINS - Gervais senior shortstop Naomi Saalfeld gives the Cougars a solid, veteran leader in the infield this season.
It's amazing what a little bit of winning can do to rejuvenate a program.

A year removed from breaking a 56-game losing streak, the Gervais softball program is looking to build on last year's successful season.

"We won five total last year and one in league and they definitely want to break that," head coach Dan Saalfeld said.

The Cougars certainly have the tools to do so. Gervais returns all but two seniors from last year's team that heavily relied on its freshman class to win its first games since the 2012 season.

"Pretty much everybody from last year is back," Saalfeld said. "We've got some good solid returners that are going to anchor some stuff down for us."

Gervais is buoyed in the infield by veteran senior shortstop Naomi Saalfeld and Regina Vargas at third base, giving the team a solid left side of the field.

At pitcher, the Cougars return sophomore Veronica Esquivel, who has been training in the offseason and enters this season with a year of varsity experience on her shoulders.

"She worked with a pitching coach a lot during the summer," Dan Saalfeld said. "It feels like her speed has doubled whenever I've caught for her."

In the outfield, sophomore Abigail Saalfeld and senior Fabiola Benavides give the Cougars a pair of athletes who can chase down balls and get the play back to the infield quickly.

"They're both strong athletes, especially in the outfield in knowing what to do," Saalfeld said. "That could be interchangeable."

All told, the Cougars are in their strongest position they've been in since the 2012 season.

But is that enough to make a playoff run after a five-win season with a team largely dominated by its sophomore class? The Gervais players certainly think so.

"They came to me before the season even started and said, 'Hey coach, we decided we want to make the playoffs this year,'" Saalfeld said.

With no league playoff and only two postseason spots available to the PacWest Conference, that means the Cougars would have to jump from a one-win team to upwards of 10 to 12 league wins.

Saalfeld was quick to challenge his players on what they were prepared to do in the off season to get ready for a playoff run.

"Some of those teams and players they play a lot more games in the off season, and I told them that," he said. "They have to make up that difference."

It would certainly be a long shot for a Gervais team that has finished at the bottom of the conference standings in each of the past four seasons.

But Saalfeld was happy to see the team come to him with such a lofty goal, which showed a renewed confidence in a softball program that has had more than its fair share of difficulties in the past half decade.

"I told them that nobody is unbeatable," Saalfeld said. "If we bring our game, come hard and commit, we can do it, but it takes a lot of work."

From that confidence and those goals, the Cougars are looking to bring the Gervais softball program into a new era that is no longer expected to lose, but expected to win and become a team that opposing schools no longer mark as an easy victory.

"I said, 'If you guys really have a goal of making the playoffs, then I am going to push you,'" Saalfeld said. "'Because I know you're capable of doing it, you just have to do it, and there's a price to pay.'"

Phil Hawkins covers all things sports and Gervais. He can be reached at 503-765-1194 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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