Wildcats softball primed for huge next spring with returning stars, experience, talent, coaching

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview junior first baseman Ananya Koneti emerged as a viable offensive and defensive presence this season for the Wildcats.

Soon enough the Westview softball team will shake free from its Class 6A state championship game hex.

The degree of playing ability ranges from all-league potential to future scholarship athlete at the collegiate level seemingly every season for the Wildcats. Head coach Ronda McKenzie is one of the best in the business at pushing the right buttons in the playoffs and getting her players to buy into the off-season grind.

In two of the past three seasons, a state crown simply hasn't been in the cards. Chalk it up to nerves. This year one could surmise it was inexperience. The pressure of a state title game is just distinct, no matter how you try to frame the contest. The duress escalates times 10 and creates a sometimes uncomfortable environment that requires sound leadership and quite frankly a swarm of seniors who have been through the fire before.

Tualatin and North Medford have both verified that notion, at the expense of the Wildcats. Each team was senior-laden and thoroughly tried from past playoff wars when they ousted Westview at the Oregon State softball complex, first in 2015 and again on Saturday.

Yet, next year, judging by blueprints put down by past champions before them and the extreme amount of star athletes slated to return, a 2018 state championship is very much attainable for Westview.

The positional players and pitchers are the types that lend credence to what will most likely be a preseason No. 1 ranking in '18. Westview's entire infield of third baseman Kelsey Day, shortstop Valeti Fifita, second baseman Taylor Alto and first baseman Ananya Koneti will be back. Each infielder has pop, power and middle-of-the-order capability to go along with sound defensive ability around the diamond. So, too, will the Wildcats' fast lookalike speedsters Maddie Curaming and Reece Martin, as well as pitchers Mia Patino and Kendall Gantz. Plus, McKenzie and her staff are always busy at work preparing the next wave of youthful Wildcats waiting in the wings for their moment to make an impact. On paper, Westview is well-positioned to not just return to the state title game for the third time in four years but capture the crown.

It could be said Westview overachieved this season, based on their initial lower-than-normal status outside of the 6A's top-10 when the season began and the opening absence of a true mail carrier in the circle after superstar Abby Greer graduated. The Wildcats, while well regarded and respected, were pegged as the third- or even fourth-best team in the Metro League before the year. That won't be the case come next March. Jesuit, who lost to Grants Pass in the 6A second round, will be good again. So, too, will Glencoe. But Westview will get the headlines and the closeups, surely, after breaking out this postseason. And the five-time Metro champs are ready to embrace the expectations.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview junior third baseman Kelsey Day came back in a big way this season, hitting in the heart of the Wildcat lineup.

"Nobody expected us to get to the state championship game this year, but now we have to own it," Koneti said. "We have to expect to be here. That's my goal, to only get back (to state), but win it. We just have to grow into that role of saying 'OK, we're not just an underdog. We have confidence, so let's go out there and do this.' We won't let anyone underestimate us. We just have to come out with the same fire and know we should on this field."

This year the Wildcats were a series of young stars, who had a purpose beyond themselves and used their individual talent to collaborate on a championship appearance few foresaw prior to this season. It's a chemistry McKenzie said she's rarely witnessed in her two decades of coaching and one that should translate a year from now with leaders such as Koneti taking the reins.

"You can't teach kids to choose to play for each other," McKenzie said. "I can preach that at them, but I can't teach them that. They have to make that choice. That's a hard choice to make and this team really chose to put the team before the individual. In our day and age of sports and summer ball, it's not really ingrained in them to be that way. So, that's what I've been the most pleased with."

On Saturday, Westview and North Medford each had trouble finding their footing in the first two innings. The difference was the Wildcats couldn't cap the second inning damage that spiraled into a double-digit stanza and ultimately doomed their state title hopes, while the Black Tornado managed to bolt from a dicey first inning with just one run allowed. Yet, with experience comes stabilization.

As with most athletic state championship games, there are three or four days of lead-up to the contest itself — maybe a tad too much space between the semifinals and finals if you ask some. There's a lot of time to think, process, mull over possible outcomes, weigh the gravity of the moment, listen to the outside noise from beyond your team's inner circle. It's a lot to handle — particularly for a team so reliant on young players still putting the "big game" into the proper perspective.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview freshman Maddie Curaming brought speed to the bottom of the Wildcat order this season.

"I think they learned from two years ago in the sense that it's just another game, you can't try harder, you can't hype it up more," McKenzie. "But when you have so many people on the outside hyping it up more, it's hard not to. We were relatively young."

Internal improvement from within is crucial this summer. But with the way Koneti, Patino, Day and so many of the other Wildcats get after it in the off-season, both playing countless games on the ASA circuit and buying into McKenzie's gain-making workouts, program-wide progression is almost promised. Preceding case studies further verify the point.

Look no further than what McKenzie and her staff did with Greer. In 2013, Greer was a precocious freshman pitcher with potential, but not the kind of punch-out arsenal needed to punish opponents in the postseason. However, after a full offseason of rigorous work in McKenzie's notoriously tough strength and conditioning physical education classes, Greer came back as a sophomore, bigger, stronger with more pop to her riseball than ever before. Greer went on to all-state status and is now starring at University of California East Bay. To expect the same sort of improvement from Patino, Gantz and the returning Wildcats would be pertinent.

"I'm very excited for next year," McKenzie said. "The pitchers need to work hard. They need to try to up their velocity and their spins and location. It'll be hard to replace (Munson). But these kids work hard. If you look at (Koneti and Fifita) a year ago and the offensive production they've had this year has been huge. And having (Day) back was huge as well."

Seniors Emma Williams, Catriona McKay and Natalie Munson closed out their exemplary Wildcat careers with 102 total wins, four Metro League championships and two state championship game appearances. McKenzie said all three will be sorely missed as Westview chases after its first state title since 2004. They leave Westview as three of the schools' all-time winningest players who were also some of the more dedicated players in the program from year-to-year.

"Hard work, dedication and the motivation to want to be here will ultimately get them here, hopefully, again," Munson said. "It's been an honor to play at Westview and I'm just so glad to have been in this position."

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