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Angela Stutzman steps away from the program due to health issues as pair of assistant coaches take over

GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN
 - Freshman left-hander Serayah Neiss has been one of the leaders in the circle for the Tigers this season.

Winners of nine of the last 11 games, the Newberg High School softball team is playing better than any squad in the program's recent history. For the past two weeks, however, the Tigers have had to carry on without their head coach in the dugout.

Coach Angela Stutzman had to leave her position for the foreseeable future due to serious health issues. Assistant coaches Rick Church and Suzie Espinoza stepped into the role and have filled in for Stutzman.

"We put a positive spin on it and it's been really good for the girls," Church said. "They're following through and working hard and the results are showing on the field. We're really happy with the progress and success they're having."

The 30-year-old Stutzman has occasionally visited practice since she stepped away, providing a boost in morale for the players as they navigate the challenges of this season. Newberg is 10-6 overall, 3-1 in the Pacific Conference and winning games in a variety of ways.GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN
 - Sophomore shortstop Katy Evans is part of a young Newberg team that is steadily improving.

Much of the team's success is due to the foundation Stutzman had put in place, Church said, but the two assistants have lent their expertise to the players as well. Church – who said he has coached more than 3,000 softball games in his career – focuses on the hitters, lineups, base running and defense, while the younger Espinoza primarily works with the pitchers.

"We do bounce everything off each other," Church said. "We try to do everything together and keep it as a team unit, but also in support of Angela because it still is her program even if she isn't there. We want to keep the flow going smooth."

A rocky start to the season has been met with a number of victories in recent weeks, including some wins over top tier opponents. Newberg handed 5A Hillsboro its only loss of the season on March 26 and recently beat a McMinnville team consistently ranked in the Top 10 in 6A.

The Tigers were ranked No. 15 heading into Tuesday's contest at Liberty, which was played after press time. Tuesday's game started a stretch of five of the next six games on the road for Newberg – games Church expects to turn out positive for a team finding its groove.

A palpable buzz exists around the program despite the hardship of not having Stutzman at the helm. The girls are excited about the team and its recent success, Church said, and a program that doesn't have many winning seasons in its history appears to be turning a corner. The Tigers are led largely by younger contributors as well.

Freshman Serayah Neiss shoulders much of the load in the circle, and freshman twins Brooke and Hayley Poff have played well at the plate and defensively in the infield. The team, Church said, boasts speed and athleticism that it hasn't had in the past. Experienced players like seniors Zimri Lemonds and Sam Teran are leading the charge in the locker room and on the field as well.

The team is coachable, Church said, and that makes a significant difference. Newberg has just 24 girls in its program and doesn't have the luxury of depth across the board that some larger schools do.

"The girls are willing to make adjustments at the plate if they need to, with guidance," he said. "They're willing to listen if they need to when they're going around the bases, and they're working to make the right adjustments on defense. It's been great work ethic, communication and having success with their abilities."

Playing for Stutzman and for pride, the Tigers look down the stretch of their Pacific Conference schedule with high expectations. The competition isn't as good, admittedly, as the Three Rivers League was last year, but a trip to the postseason is well within Newberg's grasp as it continues to play inspired ball.

After road games at Liberty and Gresham, Newberg returns home on Friday to face Forest Grove, with the first pitch scheduled for 5 p.m. The Tigers travel to Sherwood, McMinnville and Century next week, leaving just three games in their regular season schedule after that – two of them at home.

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