Kimball, Sunset softball advance to Class 6A semis
The post-quarterfinal conquest reactions were rather muted and suppressed, befitting more of a March non-league victory than a program-shaping postseason win.
Sunset pitcher Grace Kimball hugged catcher Lainey Wier and congratulated her Apollo teammates after beating Roseburg 2-1 in the Class 6A quarterfinals on May 24 at Sunset High School. But there were no tears of joy. Parents in the stands weren't falling over each other in glee. Gloves weren't thrown in the air like hats at a graduation ceremony.
The Apollos acted like they'd been in this position before, like seasoned vets chasing after another championship, even though up until this year Sunset hadn't won a postseason game since 2011. Sunset isn't done. Not by a long stretch. In the Apollos' eyes, there is still pressing business to attend to. They're chasing after the holy grail with two games to go and will stop at nothing until they get to the 6A title game and take it all.
"Our goal isn't just the semifinals, we want to go all the way," Kimball said. "You could see that we're all excited that we won, but you could tell it wasn't the end for us. It wasn't like we made it, it was like we're ready for the next step. We want to know what's next. We're pushing. We want more and want to keep going. That attitude is going to carry us because we're not content with any win."
Sunset is enjoying the journey but isn't resting on its laurels. With only four teams left in the 6A field, the Apollos have a shot at achieving what few outside of the Sunset community could ever fathom for this crew that came into the year unranked. The Apollos (24-5) will host No. 3 Sheldon in the 6A semis on Tuesday at 5 p.m. with a shot to advance to the state championship on June 1 at Jane Sanders Stadium at the University of Oregon.
"As Coach Kevin (Brown) would say we're going to keep riding the magic carpet," Sunset senior shortstop Abby Wingo said with a smile. "We feel confident going in. It's ours to lose and Sheldon has to come in here where we've only lost one game all year. It's a real advantage to have our fans and the comfortable feel. We're staying focused and staying the course."
The day before Sunset's second round matchup with Newberg, Kimball picked up "Mind Gym", an athlete's guide to inner excellence recommended to her by her pitching coach, and randomly opened to a chapter entitled "Pressure". It was an ironic and appropriate omen for a team and an ace traveling deep into the thicket of elimination play together. The work Sunset put in to get to his juncture, all the offseason instruction, club play during the summer, the rain-soaked, windswept early practices, winning 21 regular season games, winning the Metro League prepared the Apollos for the gravity of a stressful lose-and-you're-home scenario. The hay, so to speak, was in the barn.
"Once you get into that pressure situation, you just have to trust everything you've gone through, all the training you've done is going to pay off," Kimball said. "Going into that last inning I knew I couldn't change anything. I couldn't go back in time and put in another hour. I just had to trust what I had and go for it. That's what carried me through."
And under the gun, Kimball was brilliant, allowing just one run in the top of the first before blanking the Indians the rest of the way. Kimball and Wier worked wonderfully together, navigating a rugged Roseburg lineup that rips with the top power-hitting teams in the state. The duo went after the Indians with aggression, trusting Kimball's power and the defense behind her.
"She lives for that kind of stuff," Wingo said. "She controlled her pace and we didn't really have to do too much behind her. She's been like this all year. This was her game, we just had to be behind her and make as many as we could."
Junior right fielder Mei Dach made two nice catches, one ranging to her left, the other coming in hard in shallow right. Third baseman Mikaela Byrnes held down any bunt attempts and first baseman Kayla Kemp was an anchor for Wingo and Maddy Terhune. Kimball was simply a conundrum for the Indians, gaining steam as the game grew on, seemingly picking up velocity with each stanza.
"When I'm in the circle I trust myself and tell myself 'I'm better than the batter,'" Kimball said. "When I do believe that 100 percent, I can see the difference in my pitches and my game. That's when I'm at my best."
The Apollos' top team goal going into Roseburg was to not allow any "crooked" numbers. If Sunset allowed a run, that's all the Indians would get and the score would be answered. So, when Roseburg drew first blood, taking a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, the Apollos tightened the screws and hemorrhaged the damage. Then in the bottom of the first Kimball dropped a surprise bunt single, moved around to third on a Byrnes sacrifice bunt and a wild pitch, then scored on a hard-hit ball by Wingo to go up 1-0. With two outs Knapp hit a grounder in the infield that was thrown away trying to get the Apollos senior at first, which let Wingo round second and score on the error to give Sunset a 2-1 lead.
"We like to make it interesting, but we're never out of it no matter what the score is," Wingo said. "I just wanted to hit the ball as hard as I could straight into the ground. If you make them field, catch it and throw it, it'd be better for us."
For Kimball, who's allowed just three runs in three playoff games, a one-run lead would suffice. The right-hander is locked into another type of competitive zone right now, not wanting the year to end on any kind of losing note.
"I treat every game like it's the same, like it could be our last," Kimball said. "I just don't want the season to be over. I want to see every one of these girls at practice tomorrow and for another week. It's easy to give up in the playoffs and be content with how far you've made it. But there isn't much time left. We can push through the aches and the pains and the mental tiredness and play another week of softball because we love it."